Minister: Policy against deportation of families 'would send wrong message'

Home affairs minister refuses to pledge not to deport any migrant children, instead insisting that he 'will abide by Maltese and EU legislation'

Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela
Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela

The government has no policy which prohibits the deportation of families as this would send the wrong message to potential asylum seekers, home affairs minister Carmelo Abela said.

This follows a MaltaToday report on a married couple who have been in Malta for 11 years and who fear they will be deported to Eritrea together with their Malta-born children once their Temporary Humanitarian Protection – N(ew) [THP-n] expires in August 2017.

However, Abela this week denied the story and said it’s either false or made up.

“The story claims that the migrants are Eritrean, when as a matter of fact most Eritrean migrants manage to get protection. If these two child migrants come from an Eritrean family, then why didn’t they get protection?”

Speaking to MaltaToday, the mother of the two children said that their asylum application was rejected more than once, with the latest rejection coming in 2015.

The woman said she has no documentation from Eritrea – a country where torture, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, indefinite military conscription and forced labour are commonplace – and both her parents are dead. To compound matters further, she has lost contact with her sister whom she last spoke to some two years ago.

“I even had a family friend flown over from Italy at my expense to take an oath and testify that he knows me but the Refugee Commissioner said this was not sufficient evidence and rejected my application,” she said.

The family is concerned that once their temporary protection expires next year and their work permits will be revoked they will not be in a position to provide for their two children, aged eight and seven.

Reacting to the report on the possible deportation of the Malta-born children and their parents to Eritrea, Children’s Commissioner Pauline Miceli issued a statement in which she said migrant families who have settled and integrated in Malta should be allowed to acquire Maltese citizenship.

But Abela refused to pledge not to deport any migrant children back to Africa, instead insisting that he “will abide by Maltese and EU legislation.”

Speaking to MaltaToday he said that the government does not have a policy on the non-deportation of families and children “as this would send the wrong message” to potential asylum seekers.

The government is insisting that it has no option but to repatriate ‘failed asylum seekers’ with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat saying that they will be deported even if they have been residing in Malta for a long time.

“We would have no credibility with the EU if, after we have been insisting so much on the country not being able to take in immigrants, we fail to repatriate immigrants who have been found to be here illegally.”

This month the home affairs ministry announced that THP-n will no longer be issued by the Office of the Refugee Commissioner while current holders will be able to renew their certificates, provided that all current eligibility criteria are met.

But human rights NGOs have warned that many ‘failed asylum seekers’, including the Eritrean family which is fearing deportation, are unable to meet the requirements as several countries of origin refuse or are unable to provide these documents.

Citizenship by birth

Canada and the United States are among very few countries that observe birthright citizenship.

Up to 2001, people born in Malta automatically acquired citizenship but this was changed by the then Nationalist government.

Since then, people born in Malta only acquire Maltese citizenship at birth if one of the parents is either a Maltese citizen or was born in Malta.

This is leading to situations where children born in Malta to non-Maltese parents, go to school, learn the language, build relationships and know no other country but Malta, yet their ID card says they are foreign.

In a statement issued this week, Commissioner for Children Pauline Miceli said “the fact that some of these migrants have given birth to and are raising children in Malta is a clear sign that Malta is their actual home. The Office believes that it is in the best interest of these migrant children for the status of the entire family unit to be regularized, since this safeguards the children’s fundamental right to a family life.”

Children's Commissioner Pauline Miceli
Children's Commissioner Pauline Miceli

The commissioner added that citizenship is a right that migrant families with children should be able to accede to at some point in the course of their lives in Malta.

“The pathway should not be limited to those children who are born in Malta but equally to those migrant children who were born in other countries but who have settled and integrated here whether or not they enjoy international protection,” Miceli said. 

Citizenship by naturalisation

While many European countries grant citizenship to long-term or permanent residents, in Malta the acquisition of citizenship by naturalisation is overshadowed by the “singular non-reviewable discretion” which the home affairs minister enjoys in each case, according to a report issued by the European Union Democracy Observatory (EUDO) citizenship observatory.

The discretionary powers of the minister are described as “avenues of potential abuse and conflicts of interest”.

While the rich can purchase a Maltese citizenship for €650,000, people who have made Malta their home are made to wait for up to 20 years before being naturalised.

In order to apply, one must have also resided in Malta for the 12 months immediately before submitting the application for citizenship and have previously resided in Malta for periods amounting to four years in the previous six years.

Moreover, applicants are required to be of good character, have an adequate knowledge of the Maltese or the English language; and “be a suitable citizen of Malta.”

But the minister’s discretionary powers often lead to people waiting for 20 years before being naturalised.

In many other European countries, the average wait is five or six years, with Nordic countries having the most progressive policies.

In Finland, citizenship is granted after five years of continuous residence, with the requirement reduced to four years for refugees, stateless persons and people married to Finnish citizens.

The most stringent requirements among EU countries do not exceed 10 years of residence.