Illegal floating prisons | Carla Camilleri

We need to ask ourselves why Malta still operates migration through management-by-crisis, without long-term vision or contingency plans for emergencies and instead chooses to use human lives as pawns in a bid to find a solution to a global crisis

Since 28 April 2020 hundreds of individuals rescued from rubber boats after fleeing war-torn Libya have been detained on ferry boats 13 nautical miles from the coast of Malta. Make no mistake, these people are being forcibly and illegally detained by private security personnel on government chartered private vessels that should only sail within three nautical miles from land in favourable weather conditions.

They are not on a tourist joyride, sleeping in ensuite cabins and enjoying the sights, in spite of what leaked videos are suggesting. They have no contact with the outside world, no contact with the authorities and no contact with monitoring bodies or lawyers. They cannot leave the place where they are being held, and in most probability, they have little or no contact with family members.

This form of incommunicado detention, compounded by the lack of access to information, for an indefinite period of time constitutes the most serious violation of the norm protecting the right to liberty of human beings.

They have been intentionally and cynically left outside the cloak of any legal protection by the government. They have effectively been stripped from rights that you and I take for granted having had the good fortune of being born in a relatively stable European country.

We wake up and take it for granted that we will not be detained without any basis at law and we also assume that if that were to happen, we would have the right to speak to a lawyer. We would never imagine that the state would deprive us of our liberty without any reasonable suspicion of having committed a crime or found guilty of one.

We would have our mind at rest that we would have the right to take legal action to remedy any illegal deprivation of liberty and that such detention would be scrutinised by an independent magistrate or judge.

We would also know that any such action would catch media attention and that the media would be free to report and scrutinise our claims without interference by the State. We would not expect our government to use us as political pawns while we are being deprived of our liberty, for an indefinite period of time, in substandard conditions in a location that is not recognised as a place of detention at law.

We should expect the same of our government towards migrants and refugees. We should expect the State to uphold the Constitution and the numerous human rights instruments that we, as a nation, are signatory to.

This also includes relevant European Union law, and obligations related to access to international protection, in particular the principle of non-refoulement, and fundamental rights. Notwithstanding the fact that the European Union is a union based on solidarity and that at this time solidarity may seem short on supply, we need to have the confidence not to use human lives as hostages in our calls for assistance and relocation. There is no doubt that the numerous stand-offs that we have been seeing in the Mediterranean call for an agreement between member states for a predictable system for disembarkation and relocation, which also takes into consideration the strain on border states such as Malta.

While using all diplomatic and legal channels available to negotiate with other member states, the government needs to understand that floating illegal detention centres are not a long-term solution and that disembarkation needs to happen immediately before conditions deteriorate further. The Commission has reacted strongly to Malta’s request for funding for the costly chartering of the tourist ferries and relocation assistance in relation to recent events. It has consistently stated that such assistance will be given only after Malta allows for the disembarkation and access to the asylum procedure of the people being held onboard.

Malta has been the recipient of substantial funding from the European Union migration fund in recent years to assist it in accommodating refugees and asylum-seekers.

Figures on the local EU funds website show that in 2016 a Ministry for Home Affairs project for the construction of a new open centre at Hal Far was approved and over €5 million in EU co-financing funds were allocated. The centre is yet to be built. The same ministry received close to €6 million for the period between 2014-2022 to cover the costs of material conditions and support for asylum seekers being in open and closed centres, almost €1 million to support for psychosocial intervention services and over €1 million for the provision of security services in centres. The European Asylum Support Office, the EU agency based in Malta, also provides operational and technical assistance by deploying over 50 staff to support the asylum determination process.

We need to ask ourselves why Malta still operates migration through management-by-crisis, without long-term vision or contingency plans for emergencies and instead chooses to use human lives as pawns in a bid to find a solution to a global crisis.

As citizens we should be demanding that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet fully adhere to the basic principle laid down in the first line of our Constitution: Malta is a democratic country founded on respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual.