Detention centre security proved no match for over 1,000 fleeing migrants

Minister Carmelo Abela said that no records could be found regarding how many escapees were eventually caught and returned to their detention centres. 

Records revealed by Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela show that a whopping 1,286 asylum seekers managed to escape from the Safi and Lyster Barracks detention centres between 2004 and 2012.

Abela was responding to a series of parliamentary questions by Labour backbencher Anthony Agius Decelis pertaining to detention centres between 2004 and 2012, the final full year under a Nationalist administration.  

The tabled papers show that 328 irregular immigrant escapes were recorded in that same time period, the largest getaway being on 4 May 2009 when 43 immigrants all made a dash for freedom. 

Interestingly, a significant plummet in immigrant escapees was recorded in 2010, the numbers dropping to 12 when compared to the 350 escapees in 2009. The escape numbers remained relatively low in 2011 and 2012. 

Abela said that no records could be found regarding how many escapees were eventually caught and returned to their detention centres. 

However, the records definitely indicate that the vast majority of irregular immigrants who attempted to flee their detention centres succeeded in doing so. Indeed, only 46 asylum-seekers were foiled in their freedom attempts between 2004 and 2012, with none at all recorded in 2004 and 2007. 


‘No records of violence by detention service officers’ 

In response to another parliamentary question, Abela revealed records showing that disciplinary steps were taken against 44 detention service officers between 2004 and 2012, most commonly for absenteeism, leaving the workplace, and insubordination. However, no information on disciplinary steps taken against officers involved in violence against asylum seekers was tabled.   

This, the home affairs minister told parliament, was because no records were ever kept over cases of alleged violence against irregular migrants by detention services officers. Moreover, no records were ever kept of any disciplinary action that may have been taken against such officers in the past.

This means that no recorded information of allegations made against detention service officers, investigations that may have been carried out and the outcome of said investigations. 

These latest revelations are particularly damning in light of last month’s publication of a 2012 inquiry into the death of Malian asylum seeker Mamadou Kamara at the hands of detention service officers. The report, carried out by retired judge Geoffrey Valenzia, painted a grim picture of the conditions in detention centres and shed a particularly bad light on the track record of detention service officers. 

The inquiry revealed that Kamara had successfully escaped his detention centre, only to be recaptured by detention service officers, who proceeded to handcuff him, dump him inside a steel cage at the back of a detention centre van, and brutally beat him to death. According to forensic expert Mario Scerri, Kamara died from a heart attack as a result of blunt trauma. 

Nor was Kamara’s murder an isolated incident of abuse. According to the former head of the detention services, the soldiers that were deployed at the detention centres were “the worst of the worst…soldiers refused by the army”.

Lieutenant Colonel Brian Gatt shockingly admitted that such soldiers included an officer who had usury problems and another who had been charged with shooting at a yacht during training.   

“I had a sergeant in Hal Far who used to prey on migrant women, entering their rooms during the night and taking a woman back to his office with him,” Gatt told Valenzia. “Even condoms were found in the room”. 

The inquiry found that there was “a kind of inappropriate relationship going on between some members of staff and migrant women being detained. It could have been consensual but given the context, you question this consent…how real it is… because they are detained and there is a soldier-detainee relationship which renders the relationship inappropriate”.

Even this particular sergeant was never suspended but simply transferred to another section. 

It also revealed that the detention services were severely understaffed, especially with regard to female officers stationed with migrant women. At the time, there was only one female detention service officer. This meant that male officers would walk straight into female migrants taking a shower for the head count and accompany pregnant migrants to hospital at times and sometimes even stay with them while they were being examined by the doctor. 

A group of eight human rights NGOs, including aditus foundation and the Jesuit Refugee Service (Malta) condemned the report’s findings as a “scathing commentary on the way Malta has freely decided to treat men, women and children who are running for their lives”. 

“It is one of the most constructive and thorough reports to date, joining so many other reports in unequivocally condemning a policy that seeks to deprive migrants of their very humanity by locking them away out of sight, out of scrutiny and out of human rights protection,” the eight NGOs said in a joint statement. “Yet we are not shocked at any of the statements or findings in the Valenzia report. We are not shocked to read of sexual relations between a small number of Detention Services personnel and detained women. We are not shocked because we have been witnessing such incidents for several years.”

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