The system through which asylum seekers’ applications are processed – the so-called “filtering system” – is “broken” and lacks the resources to function adequately, a source within migrant services who approached The Shift with information has said.
The source pointed mainly towards key issues in the International Protection Agency (IPA), the government authority responsible for the determination of asylum seekers’ applications, which maintains a general policy of rejecting “as many applications as possible” while prioritising the processing of applications that were rejected, leading to deportation.
The person flagged another problem in the system – the extensive delays in the processing of applications in general. Although the legal limit for the processing of such an application is meant to not exceed six months unless more verification is required, the source flagged several cases which took years to determine.
When asked why they felt the government has failed to handle these problems, the source said the government was not seeking to resolve the issues at all.
“I feel like they are trying to send the EU a message, to show that Malta’s system is unable to keep up and that it is collapsing,” the source alleged.
“It’s disturbing to think that if they kept a dog in those kinds of conditions, there would be a huge public uproar, but nobody cares when they do that to asylum seekers all the time,” they added.
This was also reflected in recent protests in which migrants took to the streets of Valletta to call for better protection of their basic fundamental rights through adequate documentation and residency permission, with many complaining of situations in which they or their family members would spend years waiting for travel or basic identification documents.
On 22 December, news reports also highlighted the plight of the Sea-Eye 4, a vessel which carried out a rescue operation in Malta’s Search and Rescue (SAR) zone and was caught up in a stand-off as Malta closed off its port to a distressed crew with over 200 asylum seekers on board. The Italian coastguard was forced to intervene to evacuate three patients in dire medical conditions. Another 70 asylum seekers on two other separate vessels were also reported in distress on the same day, also in Malta’s SAR zone.
? SOS in SAR di #Malta!
Siamo in contatto con 2 barche nella zona SAR Maltese che chiedono urgentemente aiuto. 1 barca di legno con 30 persone a bordo e una 2a barca con circa 40 persone. Le autorità sono informate e devono lanciare un'operazione SAR ora! #NonLasciateleAnnegare pic.twitter.com/yrT90q0xzM
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) December 22, 2021
“I’ve seen cases that took up to four years when the legal limit is 6 months; can you imagine having four years of your life taken away from you after you’ve settled here and you’re told that you need to leave if they reject you?” the source said.
“There aren’t enough case workers and there is a high turnover of staff because of the conditions. Cases end up being passed on from one person to another, with some ending up in the hands of three, four different case workers before being seen to properly,” the person told The Shift, explaining that staff members were generally poorly trained in terms of observing asylum seekers’ rights to begin with.
“The priorities are also completely wrong. There is a tendency to keep people who have the right to stay in Malta waiting while those that are going to be rejected are prioritised,” they added.
The source added that the agency leans towards awarding subsidiary protection over refugee status because of the fact that subsidiary protection can be more easily revoked and entitles its holder to less rights than refugee status would.
While both status classifications entitle the holder to state healthcare, only refugee status entitles the holder to benefit from free healthcare. Someone who is recognised as a refugee can also apply for the right to reunite with their family, whereas someone with subsidiary protection is not be able to do so.
An unemployed refugee is also entitled to employment advisory services and training through JobsPlus, a right that is not extended to those granted subsidiary protection. A key concern flagged in the protests in Valletta was also the fact that neither status classification grants the holders’ children automatic Maltese identity if they are born on the island.
The Shift has sent questions to the IPA about its rate of staff turnover over the past three years, the amount of people awarded refugee status compared to the amount of people awarded subsidiary protection over the past year, and whether the agency prioritises deportations over successful applications.
The questions were redirected to the home affairs ministry. No response was received by the time this article was published.
‘People end up traumatised’
The source, describing the IPA as a “gatekeepers’ institution,” maintained that the agency’s overall approach was a far cry from being based on fairly sorting out who has the right to stay from who does not.
“There is a deep-rooted ignorance and lack of understanding when it comes to processing these applications. Huge assumptions are made when dealing with applicants and there is a negative bias towards them from the beginning,” the source stated.
“The process needs to be quicker because it would benefit everyone if it was. Another major problem is the verbal and sometimes physical abusiveness of staff in the detention services system – the system doesn’t care about these abuses and nothing is ever done to fix it,” they added.
When describing the high rate of staff turnover at the IPA, the source argued that the general atmosphere of the working environment meant that “if your superiors see you trying to be friendly towards an asylum seeker or even just doing your job and sticking to the laws, they try to break it out of you”.
“Because of this, many people go into this job wanting to help people, however they end up being traumatised. I know colleagues who had to go to psychologists and psychiatrists for support because it was too much to handle,” the source stated.
“EASO has already had to take over a large chunk of Malta’s operations: EASO staff took over most services including the reception, the checking of passports, even the asylum determination process and Registration of new asylum seekers,” they added, referring to the fact that the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) has had to step up its local presence to keep the operations going.
Questions have also been sent to the EASO to determine on what grounds its support was necessary for the operations. The EASO’s answers indicate that help was requested from the Maltese authorities, with an annual operating plan being updated and uploaded to its site every year since 2019.
Referring to the detention services system which asylum seekers depend on throughout their application process, the source maintained that the poor living conditions repeatedly flagged by migrants in these centres further proves the government’s lack of interest in maintaining a functional system.