Between a rock and a hard place | Mauro Farrugia, AWAS chief executive

As CEO of the government’s Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers, MAURO FARRUGIA often finds himself caught in the crossfire of the immigration debate. He calls for more objectivity when dealing with such a complex, sensitive issue

AWAS CEO Mauro Farrugia
AWAS CEO Mauro Farrugia

It is often said that immigration is a burden on Malta’s limited resources, and that the number of arrivals – coupled with the duration of the asylum process, and the fact that failed asylum seekers often end up stuck here – is ‘unsustainable’. From your experience as AWAS director, how much truth is there to this perception? Are the current numbers overwhelming our reception/detention system?

Yes, the current numbers are overwhelming and unsustainable, especially when compared to the size of the population and the size of our reception facilities. The proportion of migrants that Malta has been receiving would translate into hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of migrants in other larger European countries.

In reality, however, this is not only a matter of space. A number of other stakeholders are also involved in the asylum process: mainly the Police, the Detention Services, the health authorities and the International Protection Agency. All these entities, not just AWAS, are punching above their weight to respond to the phenomenon of illegal migration.

Obviously, COVID-19 continued to exacerbate the pressure that we are already facing.

Given your concern with the logistics of the present situation, do you feel there has been enough investment in human and other resources? In 2019, for instance, there were only around 175 AWAS staff-members working in several reception centres; and the number of residents at these centres has since increased…

Currently there are more than 200 employees, excluding security personnel, working in the facilities run by AWAS. Migration is not really a popular sector to work in. Nonetheless, we are managing to build a dedicated team which focuses on the overall welfare of the asylum seekers, rather than simply the provision of material support.

Even if we were provided with all the resources in the world, though, the constant arrival of new migrants makes it difficult to implement new projects and invest in your workforce. In the last 12 months the staff complement continued to increase, however we have to keep in mind that boat arrivals increased by over 130% in 2019 over the previous year.

New arrivals in 2020, and the coronavirus pandemic, have made matters even harder.

On the subject of COVID-19, there was at least one outbreak in detention centres during the first wave, and it is no secret that 65 rescued migrants tested positive in a single day. Beyond contributing to national COVID-19 statistics: how has the pandemic impacted the job of administering open centres in Malta? Do you feel that the existing safety precautions (for both migrants and staff) are sufficient?

We had anticipated that COVID-19 would affect our operations, and contingency plans were put into place. AWAS took measures to reduce overcrowding inside its centres, and a new medical facility was set up to deal specifically with migrants testing positive for the virus.

Thankfully we managed to endure the first wave of the pandemic almost unscathed, also with the support of organisations such as the UNCHR and the Malta Red Cross, as well as the migrants themselves. The effective system of constant monitoring, testing and isolation is still in place.

There has been a lot of criticism regarding the conditions of detention; and in October 2019, tensions boiled over into a riot in Hal Far, resulting in damage to the centre and a few injuries (including of AWAS employees). Was this a one-off incident arising from specific circumstances? Or does it reflect a general deterioration of the tensions/conditions at these facilities?

Usually the situation in Hal Far is very calm, save for very isolated incidents. Nowadays we have more professional and specialised teams working within the centres, more support workers and the newly-introduced reception facility officers. The latter are trained to maintain constant communication with the residents, and tackle issues in the shortest time possible.

The overall conditions inside the centre have improved gradually; we have given more access to NGOs, and there are plans to set up a Migrants Advice Unit, which will guide asylum seekers on matters such as the asylum process and voluntary return programmes.

AWAS will also be introducing the Unaccompanied Minors Protection Service in the coming weeks…

All the same, in the aftermath AWAS itself staged a protest outside Castille, calling for more protection for its employees. Can you outline the agency’s basic demands in this context? And what was the outcome of the meeting with Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia?

There were a number of factors which spurred the protest outside Castille. The employees were still shocked at what happened in Hal Far, and they demanded better protection inside the centre. The discussions which ensued, following the riot, led to an increase in security as well as compensation for the damages sustained.

But I also think that the employees wanted recognition for the service they are giving to this country. AWAS is usually targeted by both sides of the immigration debate: those who are opposed to migration, and those who work to support the migrant community. Very often we speak of “Hal Far” or “the migrants’ centres”; but we tend to forget that these centres are run by workers who try to give the best possible service to men, women, children and families around the clock.

Responding to the same event, the Faculty of Education called on the authorities “to reflect on the policies the country adopts in relation to migration, including its integration strategies. Ghettoing people in a particular locality, leaving them in a state of uncertainty, and de facto punishing those who are simply seeking to escape hell or seek a decent life, is leading to anger and frustration, unfortunately this may lead to violence.” Do you agree with those concerns?

I agree with the general feeling of the comment. Yet it is wrong to shift all the responsibility of migrants’ welfare onto AWAS. This is a challenge which requires the effort of all players: government entities, civil society, the private sector, the education sector, as well as the general public. AWAS helps the migrants do their part, too.

I tend to smile when I read statements on migrants’ centres by individuals who have never set a foot inside a centre. Migration has to be tackled in an objective manner. I am all in favour of supporting those who are genuinely fleeing war or persecution.

On the other hand, we have to admit that there is a significant number of irregular migrants who do not deserve protection. These migrants are actually making it harder for us to concentrate on those who truly need protection and support.

But in order to determine whether a migrant is entitled to protection, an asylum process has to take place. Last June, migrants rescued at sea were held offshore on four tourist boats for five weeks before being allowed to disembark in Malta. AWAS is the government agency responsible for the welfare of migrants in detention; yet it seems that it had no presence on these vessels. Was AWAS in any way involved in the administration of those offshore detention centres?

AWAS does not run detention facilities. We are only responsible for one closed centre, which is for vulnerable persons who are medically quarantined upon their arrival. The operation you refer to did not involve AWAS employees; however, we did provide our expertise and all sorts of supplies to those on board.

It is also worth pointing out that vulnerable migrants were not held offshore. These were evacuated immediately and transferred to AWAS facilities on land.

Yet at the end of last month, government issued an expression of interest to commission ships that will once again be used as quarantine facilities of migrants rescued at sea. Given that the last attempt caused widespread criticism over human rights issues, is AWAS concerned about the welfare of the migrants who will be detained?   

Quarantine rules are not part of the remit of AWAS. I understand that the decision has been taken also to safeguard the health of the migrants living in the centres. We will definitely be there to support all asylum seekers reaching Malta’s shores…

But what is your own view on the policy of holding migrants at sea under such circumstances? Do you agree with the government’s argument that these measures are justifiable in view of the global health emergency caused by COVID-19?

I think we have managed the spread of COVID-19 in the centres quite well. Keep in mind that the decision to hold migrants at sea was taken when the largest migrants’ centre in Malta was placed under quarantine. The situation inside the centres did not change a lot, and the risks that we faced in March, April and May are still there.

Increasing the density of the centres at this point in time could cause serious problems; and to be honest, I cannot think of an alternative solution. In April there was the idea to place migrants inside hotels. But this would have been a logistical nightmare in terms of security and public health. Migrants arriving in Malta are not screened only for COVID-19…

Lastly, we have of late been witnessing increased reports of homelessness, in particular affecting migrants who are either rejected by the asylum system, or for some other reason can no longer reside at open centres. What policies exist to cater for this growing contingent? And what are your own views on how this problem can be addressed?

One has to keep in mind that open centres are meant to provide accommodation for a temporary period.

During such period, we support asylum seekers to live independently, mostly through the promotion of legal employment.

Vulnerable groups such as families and minors are supported for longer periods as opposed to other migrants.

Rejected asylum seekers are not eligible for accommodation and, albeit difficult, there are means available to help these persons return to their country of origin.

The only way to reduce the pressure caused by economic migrants on the asylum system is to process the asylum application in transit countries. Genuine asylum seekers should not risk their lives at sea to get protection.

Unfortunately, however, this solution is still a long way off.