Refugee Commissioner silent about offshore detention of migrants

Refugee Commissioner Roberta Buhagiar has not said whether she agrees with the government’s decision to host migrants aboard ships off Maltese shores, saying that the issue does not fall under her remit.

The Shift asked Buhagiar what her position is and whether she agrees with the government’s decision to keep migrants aboard tourist ships off Malta.

After receiving no reply, The Shift reached Buhagiar by phone, and she confirmed that she did not wish to comment “You can refer to the reply I gave your colleague almost a year ago,” she said, then abruptly hung up before anything further could be asked.

A year ago, there was no issue of asylum seekers being detained offshore on vessels commissioned by the Maltese government because of the COVID-19 virus.

Buhagiar was referring to a comment she gave to The Shift when asked about the controversial agreement struck between Libya and Malta to have migrants sent back to Libya.

At that time, she said her office was only responsible for “receiving and assessing applications for international protection lodged in Malta”.

That does not preclude the Refugee Commissioner from expressing her view on asylum seekers in Malta and whether their right to seek asylum according to international law is being safeguarded.

“Since my office’s remit is not granting access to Maltese territory, we are available to assist with all asylum claims as soon as we are given access to asylum seekers or they are presented to our office,” noted Buhagiar.

A lawyer who is an expert on immigration law consulted by The Shift said that migrants will only fall under the Refugee Commissioner’s responsibility once they file a request for asylum. He explained that a simple ‘I cannot go back home’ to a government official, even a soldier, is a request for asylum.

Questions sent to the Refugee Commissioner on whether the office was ensuring these rights were observd were not answered. She repeated that the responsibility of her office was to process applications and insisted on the training her officers had received.

At any point before migrants request asylum, they fall under the responsibility of the Home Affairs Ministry. The Refugee Commissioner was only too keen to point this out.

Buhagiar further explained that since her appointment as Refugee Commissioner, she has not been aware of spurned requests for asylum. “As long as a claim is submitted on Maltese territory, we process all requests for international protection and grant international protection to those who need it,” she said.

Yet it does now answer the question of whether those held in detention onboard vessels are being granted the same access.

Following the controversial hosting of migrants on tourist ships in May, the government has issued a public call for companies interested in supplying vessels to isolate migrants at sea.

Captain Morgan and Supreme Travel, together with other companies, were engaged by the government during May’s hosting of migrants. The Shift has reported how the detention of migrants on tourist vessels in summer is expected to cost tens of thousands per day, according to bids submitted by various companies.

Buhagiar, who was appointed Refugee Commissioner in October 2019, did not comment on the housing of migrants on boats in May, either.

Prior to her appointment as Refugee Commissioner, Buhagiar had worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other NGOs in the field of migration.

UNHCR has expressed its concern about Malta’s decision to host migrants offshore on tourist vessels, and has called upon the Maltese government to cease such practices. Together with the International Organisation for Migration, it reminded EU states of their international obligations towards migrants.

The cost of housing  migrants aboard offshore ships previously cost €1.7 million. The total amount, which was disclosed in a government press release, included the daily rental of Captain Morgan and Supreme Travel vessels. It also listed other expenses, including the provision of food and transportation.

In a Freedom of Information request sent by The Shift, the government said, “no documentation exists” to verify the costs incurred during the operation.

‘Malta should not deny opportunity for protection’

Director of Aditus Foundation, Neil Falzon, told The Shift that placing migrants outside Malta’s territory, or denying them any form of communication, would be tantamount to limiting their right to ask for protection.

Asked to react to the government’s initiative to keep migrants away from Maltese shores, Falzon said that, like any other human being, rescued migrants are entitled to ask for protection. “Malta should not deny this opportunity.”

“Nonetheless, a COVID-related quarantine of two weeks would not have a significant impact on their asylum applications. We are more concerned about their living conditions during those two weeks,” he added.

He questioned whether other forms of quarantine, such as hotels or apartments, have been actively explored. “Why is it OK to automatically think ‘leave them on a ship’, when talking about migrants? What if tourists test positive, will they be also quarantined on a ship?” he asked.


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