The Malta Independent 3 March 2024, Sunday
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Tough with the weak

Kevin Cassar Sunday, 22 January 2023, 09:12 Last update: about 2 years ago

Malta has been humiliated by the European Court of Human Rights, again, thanks to Byron Camilleri. The Court ordered Malta not to hold unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in conditions that subject them to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Seven unaccompanied minors, together with 40 adults, were rescued in November 2022 at sea and brought to Malta.  The Immigration Appeals Board held a joint hearing for all 47, many of whom were not even present for the hearing.  All were detained, including children.

AWAS, the agency for the welfare of asylum seekers, should have been informed immediately about the unaccompanied minors.  AWAS is legally responsible for the care of unaccompanied minors.  It’s meant to act as the children’s legal guardian.  But until 10 January 2023, AWAS had still not been told about the children. 

As a result those children were kept with adults in detention. They had no access to an outside yard or common area and could not make phone calls.  The children suffered cold as the windows at their detention centre cannot be closed. There are no doors to the toilets and bathrooms. They can only drink tap water.

The UNHCR issued guidelines on dealing with children seeking asylum.  It insists that “authorities should take necessary measures to ensure that unaccompanied children seeking admission are identified as such promptly and on a priority basis”. Yet Minister Byron Camilleri kept these children in detention for weeks without bothering to establish their age.

The UNHCR demands that “a guardian or advisor should be appointed as soon as the unaccompanied child is identified”.  None of the seven have been provided with a guardian.

The most important point made by the UNHCR that Byron Camilleri and his Labour government continue to ignore is “Children seeking asylum should not be kept in detention - particularly in the case of unaccompanied children”.  UNHCR adds that “Children’s refugee status applications be given priority and that every effort be made to reach a decision promptly and fairly”.

The European Court of Human Rights knows there is no way that Malta’s detention centres can provide children the level of care and protection they require. That same court found Malta in violation of the convention on human rights when Malta held a person in degrading conditions for 14 months.  For 75 days the man was held alone in a container without access to natural light or air. For 40 days he had no opportunity to exercise. The court ruled he was subjected to de facto isolation and to inhuman and degrading treatment. It awarded the man 25,000 euro.

Now, that Court is warning Malta that “failure of a contracting state to comply with a measure indicated under Rule 39 may entail a breach of article 34 of the Convention”. The Court is warning Byron Camilleri that keeping those minors in inhuman or degrading conditions amounts to breaking the law and a violation of their rights.

But this is Byron Camilleri the European Court is dealing with. The Minister issued his own statement.  “The Ministry clarifies that the ECHR did not order these persons to be released from detention,” he declared. He hurled accusations at the lawyers of those children of “making incorrect and erroneous statements which the Ministry will answer at the ECHR”. He claimed that these weren’t children at all.  They were just claiming they’re children “to lengthen the process of asylum and reduce the risk of being repatriated”.  And in a final note of defiance, the minister added “the authorities are committed to fight this abuse in the interest of the country”.

What he should be fighting is a different type of abuse, abuse that has been repeatedly highlighted in damning international reports, NAO reports and in several local court judgements.  The office of the UN High Commissioner for human rights reported on detention guards goading detainees to commit suicide, forcing them to drink water from toilets and using excessive force. The European Committee of the prevention of torture found “a system that ‘contained’ migrants who had essentially been forgotten in conditions which verged on institutional mass neglect by the authorities”. The living conditions in those detention centres were so bad that “they may well amount to inhuman and degrading treatment”.

When a Sudanese detainee injured himself during an attempt to escape, staff at the detention centre took over 3 hours before providing help.  The man bled to death.  The committee for prevention of torture was “unable to reassure itself that staff reacted promptly”.

The National Audit Office reported that detention centres were overcrowded and posed health risks to both detainees and employees. It found those centres poorly maintained.  Bathrooms and dormitories were filthy and mould infested.

The Commissioner for Human rights Dunja Mijatovic was struck by “the deplorable conditions at Block A at Safi Detention centre, including the carceral design, the blatantly poor sanitary and hygiene conditions and overcrowding”. And minors were not appointed a guardian.  Most weren’t attending school and had no meaningful activities to participate in, in breach of the law.  The Commissioner advised that Malta “should end all detention of any child”.  That report was published on 15 February 2022.  A year later Byron Camilleri is interested only in fighting the “abuse” committed by those very children whose rights he violates and their lawyers.

In doing so Camilleri is breaching the UN Committee’s Rights of the Child which explicitly states that “the detention of any child because of their or their parents’ migration status constitutes a child right violation”.

Camilleri is building quite a record.  Our own courts condemned his illegal detention policies as “abusive and farcical”. 

But Camilleri isn’t bothered about breaking the law. He’s not embarrassed by the European court decision or the litany of damning reports. Hes not fussed about detaining children in appalling conditions. He just keeps repeating “there should be no sensitivity”, “our country should be tougher”.

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