Courts declare migrants' detention illegal

The detention of six asylum seekers, detained at the Safi Barracks for over 10 ten weeks has been declared illegal by the court of Magistrates

The detention of six asylum seekers, detained at the Safi Barracks for over 10 ten weeks has been declared illegal by the court of Magistrates.

The migrants, assisted by lawyers from Aditus Foundation and Jesuit Refugees Services, had filed habeas corpus proceedings on the grounds that they had been detained beyond the legal limit of 10 weeks.

Their lawyers had argued that their continued detention was not merely a ‘restriction of movement’ in terms of prevention of disease laws, but was a flagrant deprivation of their personal liberty.

The applicants explained how, immediately following their rescue at sea, they had been questioned by police officials, without the assistance of an interpreter and taken to the detention centre, where their personal possessions were confiscated.

They were then handed a document restricting their movement stating that there were “reasonable grounds” to suspect that they were carriers of a contagious disease and therefore required medical screening.

The applicants were made to submit to a scan of their chest at a health centre but were never informed of the results of those tests.

In the meantime, they had applied for asylum, making their presence in Malta “regular and lawful.”

Despite this, however, they continued to be detained at the Safi Barracks under permanent supervision. Whenever they were transported to visit the health centre or the Office of the Refugee Commissioner, the migrants were handcuffed.

The applicants’ lawyers argued that this amounted to an unlawful deprivation of their personal liberty, exceeding the necessary restriction of movement for public health reasons in terms of the law. They also observed that the public health procedure was only applicable in respect of migrants rescued at sea.

Migrants reaching Malta by other means, tourists or even Maltese nationals returning home after visiting high-risk countries were not subjected to similar restrictions, the applicants argued.

Although the law allows the extension of the initial four-week detention period to 10 weeks “for the purpose of finalizing such microbiological tests as may be necessary,” the migrants said they were never tested again and were not given treatment for any possible disease.

At no stage were they informed as to what led to the Superintendent of Public Health to conclude that there was “reasonable suspicion” that they “may spread disease” and neither were they quarantined at the Barracks.

The detainee’s lawyers told the court that the manner they were detained did not appear to stem from public health concerns but rather “a migration management policy that is concerned with other considerations – considerations that, whilst potentially valid from a public policy perspective, do not constitute valid legal ground.”

After hearing submissions by the Attorney General and Health Authorities as well as the lawyers for the parties, the court declared their detention unlawful and ordered the applicants’ immediate release.

“For a number of months now, Malta has been detaining asylum-seekers on these above-mentioned health grounds. We have repeatedly communicated with the authorities, alerting them to the serious issues this detention raised in terms of its lack of conformity with human rights standards,” said lawyer Neil Falzon.