Human Rights Watch said Malta’s automatic, indiscriminate, and blanket detention of migrants – including unaccompanied migrant children – was inhumane and unnecessary.
The internationally renowned human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report today that details the abuse of migrants' rights through their prolonged detention at the hands of Maltese authorities.
At a press conference presenting the report, just weeks after the death of a Malian asylum seeker Mamadou Kamara at the hands of his guardians, Alice Farmer - researcher in the Children's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch - called for an end to the blanket detention policy and ensure that children are not detained pending age determination.
Human Rights Watch's new 50-page report "Boat Ride to Detention: Adult and Child Migrants in Malta" details treatment of migrants, typically from sub-Saharan Africa, who arrive in Malta after treacherous boat journeys across the Mediterranean, in unseaworthy boats, without enough food, water, or fuel.
"Upon arrival in Malta, virtually all irregular migrants are detained - and the conditions in detention can exacerbate the trauma of the journey. The July 2012 death of Mamadou Kamara, a 32-year-old Malian migrant who was found dead inside a Maltese Detention Services van, has increased concern over the country's treatment of migrants.
"Malta's automatic, indiscriminate, and blanket detention of migrants - including unaccompanied migrant children - is inhumane and unnecessary," Farmer said.
"It doesn't deter migrants from coming to Malta and it violates international law."
Since 2002, approximately 15,000 migrants have landed by boat in Malta.
Human Rights Watch's report documents how Malta has detained virtually all of these migrants without regard to age. Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are detained for up to 12 months, and migrants who do not apply for asylum (or who are rejected) can be detained for up to 18 months.
HRW claimed that even the most vulnerable migrants - such as families with children, elderly people, and people with mental or physical disabilities - are taken to detention.
The report documents Malta's routine detention of unaccompanied migrant children - who are often fleeing violence or conflict in countries such as Somalia and Eritrea - pending the outcome of a lengthy age determination procedure.
According to Human Rights Watch:
- Unaccompanied migrant children are children traveling without parents or other guardians; typically they travel in dangerous conditions for many months before reaching Malta.
- If Malta determines that they are under age 18 - often only after a lengthy period in detention - they are released to group homes for children.
- Among the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the average length of time spent in detention awaiting age determination was 3.4 months.
- Most unaccompanied migrant children travel without passports or other identifying documents, which may be impossible to obtain in their countries of origin. The Maltese government treats unaccompanied children who lack proof of their age as adults and detains them in adult facilities.
Human Rights Watch interviewees relate being detained with children as young as 12 years old.
"Malta should treat migrants who claim to be under age 18 as children until proven otherwise and never detain them," Farmer said.
"The fact that unaccompanied children, who have made long and dangerous trips without their parents or other caregivers, are locked up until they can prove they are children demonstrates the brutality of the detention policy."
Farmer also said that children are exposed to periodic violence in detention facilities, and those interviewed by Human Rights Watch related instances of exploitation. Abdi M., who was 17 years old when he was detained, told us: "Every day a big man from Mali came and said, 'Give me your food.' And one day I said no, and he hit me. I was out on the floor [unconscious] for half an hour. I told the soldiers but they said, 'We don't care.' No one helped me, I just cried and went to sleep.'
Farmer also said detention was taking its toll on the mental health of adult and child migrants alike. Kelile T., who reported that he was 17-years-old when he arrived in Malta in 2011, was detained for 9 months before he was hospitalized for 15 days for mental health treatment. After treatment, he was nonetheless returned to detention, he said. He described his experience: "I take medicine now, for sleep. No medicine, I can't sleep... my mind is no good, it is very hard. I can't, I can't... this is a hard place. I need a free place."