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EDITORIAL | Wednesday, 07 November 2007

The black hole of Hal Far

“It is basically a small room, a cell… They eat there, they defecate there, all in one room and (whether) there is one or there are five of them, it’s still the same sized room.”
These and other grim revelations were made in court over a month ago by Dr Greta Apap, a Medicare Services Limited employee who was testifying in a Constitutional Case brought by Eritrean national Tafarra Besabe Berhe against the Principal Immigration Officer John Rizzo and the Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg.
Describing the squalid conditions faced by eight immigrants forced to spend days in an isolation cell at the Lyster barracks in Hal Far, Dr Apap has provided a rare glimpse of the sordid realities faced each day by hundreds of immigrants in detention, not to mention the AFM soldiers entrusted with administering these facilities.
For years now, sections of the Maltese media have requested access to these centres, to ascertain how much truth there may be in the often alarming allegations made by former detainees upon their release. Apart from being driven by a natural desire to shed light on the truth – a characteristic common to all serious journalism – these requests were spurred also by a basic interest in the way the present government is administering public money.
Immigration, we are told, costs the national exchequer millions of liri each year. And yet, the general public has never been given a satisfactory explanation as to how these monies are being spent. The principles of transparency and accountability should be reason enough to allow at least limited access to the media. However, despite years of repeated requests, the Home Affairs Ministry responsible for these centres has refused to budge an inch.
And yet, it is not the first time the squalid conditions of detention have been exposed as our national guilty secret. In 2004, the European Council’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Degrading Treatment issued a report highlighting a number of disturbing factors, including: “a prison-like environment, a climate of tension, a quasi-total absence of activities, a lack of regular outdoor exercise, inadequate medical/psychiatric care, a lack of information for foreign nationals concerning their situation… Not surprisingly, cases of self-mutilation, suicide attempts, hunger strikes, vandalism and violence were relatively common.”
More recently still, media reports described how troublemakers at the Lyster Barracks in Hal Far were cooped up in a small cell, without windows or sanitary facilities, as a form of punishment. Elsewhere, former UN Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil Robles issued a damning statement on the plight of immigrants in detention, comparing the accommodation at the Hal Safi barracks to “a microwave in summer and a fridge in winter”, and adding that “migrants are confronted with the deterioration of the sanitary installations, which are totally ill adapted to the number of people using them.”
But Dr Apap’s testimony last month is altogether more disturbing for another, very different reason. The details regarding the Hal Far isolation cell would be shocking enough if the eight asylum seekers had been forced to spend days therein as a form of punishment. In reality, however, the stark fact of the matter is that they were kept there in quarantine after being diagnosed with chicken pox.
“We had to isolate them but we didn’t have the facilities to isolate just eight people so unfortunately these people ended up in an area not so hygienic and more of a detriment for someone who has chicken pox”, Dr Apap said in court.
From this perspective, it is clear that the issue at stake here is not just one of cruel or inhuman treatment of persons in detention. The real issue is that even with the best intentions in the world – which is already debatable to begin with – the government’s entire detention policy has proved to be nothing but a colossal failure from beginning to end.
It has failed to rise to the occasion by providing the hospitality for which we have an undeserved international reputation, or even the excellent health services of which we claim to be so proved. It has failed to live up to the promise of accountability in all aspects of the country’s administration. Above all, however, it has failed to guarantee even the most basic of human rights, allowing instead that human beings are kept in tiny isolation cells without toilets, and which reek of their own faeces and urine.
By any stretch of the imagination, this is a situation which grossly belies the present government’s loud proclamations of Christian values.

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NEWS | Wednesday, 07 November 2007

Veteran Italian journalist Biagi dies

MLP complains yet again about Bondiplus

US embassy at Corinthia ‘open for business’ despite terror threats

Labour MP tables bill against prescription on corruption

Contribution to port workers’ pension fund slashed by 70%

Malta’s integration policy falls well below EU average

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