[WATCH] No Man’s Land | Diara Diambourou and Sekou Dipa

Diara Diambourou and Sekou Dipa, two of the nine Malian detainees released last week after 90 days in custody, talk about the conditions of detention, and the legal limbo faced by failed asylum seekers in Malta

Diara Diambourou and Sekou Dipa
Diara Diambourou and Sekou Dipa
Malian migrant recounts treatment by officers in Safi detention centre

Last week, the remaining nine detainees from a group of 33, all from Mali, were released from the Safi detention centre: ostensibly because the government of Mali failed to produce the necessary documentation for their deportation. 

Their predicament illustrates one of the thornier problems of the broader immigration phenomenon. As a rule, all asylum seekers landing in Malta undergo an application process for refugee status (or some other form of internationally recognised protection) upon arrival. Not all applications are accepted... and as the experience of this group confirms, the fate of failed applicants is far from certain.

Legally, they can be deported as illegal aliens. In practice, however, this often proves difficult (if not impossible) for logistical reasons. The group of Malians who were arrested last November are among an estimated 1,200 people who find themselves in a veritable ‘No Man’s Land’ as a result of this quandary. Though bereft of any recognised status at law, their presence here is nonetheless an inescapable reality which must perforce be acknowledged.

It was to address this problem that the government (under the previous administration) devised a new form of legal status – referred to as ‘THP-n’ – which allowed rejected asylum applicants to live, work and pay taxes here legally. The permits themselves have to be renewed at the Police HQ in Floriana every three weeks. 

As the name implies, it was never intended to be a permanent solution; yet some THP-n holders have been living and working here through this system for as long as a decade. Diara Diamborou and Sekou Dipa, whom I interviewed last Thursday, have had their THP-n permits for seven years. Both found secure employment; neither has had any form of trouble with the police (note: I specify this because it is one of the conditions of the permit to be renewed). 

Yet last November, what should have been a routine permit renewal like any other turned into a mass arrest and detention of 33 THP-n holders, all from Mali. As confirmed by Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela yesterday, the cause of this abrupt change of policy – which took them completely by surprise – was an agreement signed last November between the European Union and several African countries (Mali included), to facilitate deportation of failed asylum seekers in exchange for direct European investment.  

“We went to the police [Floriana depot] to renew our permits, and the police arrested us and told us that we were going to be sent back to Mali,” Diara begins when I ask him to give an account of what happened that day. “They handcuffed us and took us to the detention centre... they told us we would stay there until a delegation came from the Mali government to identify us and confirm that we came from Mali...”

Were they given any indication of how long the detention period would be at the time of the arrest?

“No. When we asked [later], they said it could be two weeks, or maybe a month...”

But in the end they spent three months detained in the Safi barracks, and were only released because the Mali government failed to produce the documentation necessary for their deportation. As Diara later explains, the fact that they were released from detention does not signal another change in policy... when (or if) the travel documents are delivered from Mali, they face the possibility of re-arrest and deportation.

“The situation is not finished. When they released us, they told us we were free to go... but any time, we could be arrested again.”

Before turning to the anomaly of the situation itself – all 1,200 of this category of asylum seeker seem to be both legal and illegal at the same time, in the eyes of the authorities – I ask Diara and Sekou to comment about the conditions of their 90-day detention.

Encouraged by nods from Sekou, Diara explains that the detainees spent the entire 90-day duration of their detention confined to their cells. “We were not allowed to go outside. For three months we stayed there, in our rooms. Even if you are sick, and want to go to the hospital, they handcuff you. That is the situation in detention.”

Food consisted of a piece of bread for breakfast – ‘sometimes the bread was stale... three or four days old’ – pasta for lunch and chicken or other meat for dinner.

Visitors were not allowed, though exceptions were made for their lawyer as well as representatives of NGOs. This detail proved life-threatening for at least one of the detainees – Diara, who suffers from an allergic condition and needs to take pills on a daily basis. Owing to the surprise nature of his arrest, he was not given the opportunity to go home and retrieve the pills (though he asked and was refused). And despite repeated pleas with the detention wardens, he claims he was prevented from contacting a friend who could easily have brought him the pills had he been allowed any visits.

But didn’t he have access to a doctor at the Safi barracks? 

“Yes, but when I asked the doctor for my medicine, he said no. ‘The government cannot give you this medicine [through the free dispensation service]: you have to buy it yourself’. I told him that I had the medicine at home, and asked him to inform the Detention Services personnel [note: the word he used was ‘police’, but he later clarified he was referring to the guards on duty] so that they could take me home to get it. He [the doctor] asked them, but they said no...”

Diara also asked whether it would be possible – seeing as he couldn’t leave the cell himself – for any of the guards to take 20 euros from his account and buy him the medicine themselves. Again, the answer was no.

“So I told them, just call my friend and he will go to my house and get the medicine. He knows where it is. This friend of mine, he is not black; he is Maltese. Again they said no. When I told the doctor, he said that he could do nothing for me [...] at one point he took me to Boffa Hospital, but there they said no, too. They told me I had to buy it... I said that it was not a problem, I had the money. But not in my pocket. The money was in my account.” 

However, his request for others to access his account and withdraw the money once again fell on deaf ears.

To give both sides of this account, the doctor on duty at the Safi detention centre would later say that he offered Diara different medication for the same ailment while in detention. Diara however has no recollection of this. Moreover, it remains unclear why such a basic request should have been repeatedly turned down. As things stand, Diara received no medical treatment for his condition at all while in detention, and his state of health – both physical and mental – deteriorated so alarmingly that he was eventually transferred to Mt Carmel hospital. 

During the interview, he showed me a photo of his face covered in blemishes.

“While I was sick in my cell, everybody wanted to come and see me. They came with torches to look at my face and my body...” 

Sekou here interjects to explain, because of the unsightly nature of the condition (I can confirm from the photo that the external symptoms are quite conspicuous) Diara confined himself to his bed in order to avoid being seen in that condition. 

Diara admits he reacted violently when his privacy was invaded. The other detainees feared for his life, too. ‘We thought he would kill himself’, Sekou says as Diara falls silent. It was for this reason, he adds, that Diara was eventually transferred to Mt Carmel Hospital... where a nurse finally called his Maltese friend who provided the medication he needed.

At this point Sekou takes over the narrative. “When we were arrested, he [Diara] told the police in front of everybody that he had this problem. He said he was sick, that he needed to take a pill every day, and he asked to be taken home so he can get the medication... or to call his friend. They [the police] said no; they didn’t want to hear. ‘It is not our problem, you have to go into detention’...”

Moving on from the material conditions of detention, failed asylum seekers also face problems once they are released. Diara and Sekou both had jobs to go back to, and which were kept for them by their employers for three months. Others were not so lucky, and lost their employment as a result of their arrest. But even for those in employment, the situation is far from clear.

Sekou explains that failed asylum seekers are technically able to work and pay taxes thanks to a temporary work permit, but are denied the facilities offered to refugees or THP-holders. “After the [initial] detention, you can go to either Hal Far or Marsa open centres. I will give you my situation as an example. I was at Marsa for one year. At the open centre you can go to school and they will help you find a job... but only if you have protection. If, like me, you don’t have protection... it doesn’t matter if you are working or not, after one year you have to leave the centre. Where will you sleep?”

Open centre residents also receive an allowance, he adds, which amounts to 90 euros a month. Once the year is up, even that meagre income evaporates.

There is, however, a curious paradox in all this. On one hand, failed asylum seekers are at every point reminded of the illegality of their status... and efforts are underway to have them deported. At the same time, the State furnishes them with perfectly legal work permits, indirectly encouraging them to think their presence here has been regularised. 

Sekou seems conscious of this contradiction:   “We know we are illegal here. But when you start to work, when you have a work permit... I think that is authorisation to work, given by the government of a country. We are illegal immigrants, but the work permit is not illegal. We pay taxes...” 

There is also evidence that demand for such workers is high. Asked how easy or difficult it is for a failed asylum seeker to find and retain employment in Malta, both Sekou and Diara say it is “simple”. In Diara’s case, his employers even tried to convince the authorities to allow him to stay on (the fact that his job was retained for 90 days attests to this, too).

This raises a question: if these people have been working and contributing to the economy for seven years – and their contributions are clearly both needed and welcome (at least, to their employers... and possibly the Inland Revenue Department also)... why, in their opinion, is their presence here considered such a problem that they had to be arrested and detained? Why do they themselves think they are being threatened with deportation?

“I think it is because they don’t like me,” Sekou replies after a pause. “Because it’s not my country; because I don’t have protection...”

Nonetheless Sekou argues – also through a Constitutional case filed by his lawyer - that the seven years he has spent contributing to the economy should legally entitle him, and others in the same position, to a status of legality. “It is not me saying this, but the law of Malta. After five years working in Malta and paying tax contributions – with a clean police conduct – they do not have the right to put you back in detention. In prison, yes, if you break the law... but detention is not prison. You are put there for no reason... this is against Maltese law, and also against human rights...”