The Council of Europe is continuing to apply pressure on the Maltese authorities to shape up the historically atrocious conditions at the Safi Detention Centre.
The COE’s Committee of Ministers at their meeting last week decided to keep open until next year a case related to those conditions, by which time it expects the Maltese authorities to provide a positive update on the situation.
The decision comes in the wake of an ad hoc ‘rapid response’ visit of its Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) to inspect the facility two years ago, in September 2020, and a following related visit a year later by its Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović in October 2021.
The CPT visit was spurred by reports of horrid conditions within the centre some eight months into the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In its subsequent report, the Committee highlighted critical deficiencies that it said “may well amount to inhuman and degrading treatment” and a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The findings were far from satisfactory. They detailed, for example, how many asylum seekers at the centre were locked up 24 hours a day with no physical activity and in dirty and demeaning conditions.
The CPT also found that many of those in detention had no idea of how long they would be detained, or even why they were being detained in the first place. The breaches also included Covid-19 positive people being held in the same space as those who had not tested positive.
In its findings, the CPT acknowledged the challenge of the public health crisis created by the onslaught of Covid-19 combined with the arrival of relatively high numbers of migrants.
“Nonetheless,” it said, “the State cannot derogate from its duty to ensure that all migrants who are detained are treated with dignity and held in humane and safe conditions. This was not the case at the time of the visit.”
The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović visited the centre herself in October 2021 and, while noting efforts made by the government to improve living conditions, reiterated a call for the authorities to take “immediate action to ensure dignified conditions for all those currently held there”.
Case left open as COE ministers still concerned two years later
That was two years ago but as the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers gathered last week for its quarterly meeting to discuss the implementation of a handful of judgements by member states, one case in particular, which featured the Safi Detention Centre, was up for special discussion.
The case under inspection dealt with a former detainee at the Safi Detention Centre, Joseph Felizaoo, who was awarded €25,000 in compensation from the state after the European Court of Human Rights found the conditions at centre were inhumane and that his detention pending deportation from Malta was unlawful, amongst other issues.
The judgment stressed that states have to ensure that people are detained in conditions that respect human dignity and that avoid unnecessary hardship.
This particular case predates last year’s uproar but the COE’s Committee of Ministers – which oversees the execution of ECHR judgments on the basis of information provided by national authorities, applicants, NGOs, National Human Rights Institutions and other interested parties – used last week’s review to keep tabs on the situation at Safi.
The Committee noted how the compensation had been paid and that the applicant was no longer in detention. As such, they closed off the individual measure concerning Feilazoo.
Not so, however, with the general measures pertaining to the detention centre, which the Committee left open for follow-up.
They have requested Malta to provide information on a number of points by March, after which the issue will come up for discussion in 2023.
The Committee is particularly concerned with the centre’s living conditions and noted “with interest” the ongoing efforts to improve them and encouraged them “to pursue these efforts” and “to ensure that conditions of detention in the Safi Detention Centre are at an acceptable level pending the refurbishment works”.
It asked the Maltese authorities to “keep the Committee informed on any other envisaged measures to bring the conditions of detention in the Safi Detention Centre, as well as in all the other centres intended and/or used for the detention of migrants, in line with the Convention requirements”.
They have also asked Malta to reduce the risk of de facto isolation and to ensure the necessary administrative and financial tools for the adequate long-term functioning of the recently created post of the Welfare Officer and of the medical facility at the Safi Detention Centre.
Malta needs to provide some tangible proof of improvements and the ministers assembled called on Malta “to submit any reports or assessments of these improvements and their impact on the overall conditions of detention in practice”.
Safi refurbishments underway, Malta says
Malta had furnished its replies last December and at the end of June this year, in which it confirmed that refurbishment work was ongoing at the block in which Feilazoo was being held, as well as at two other blocks at the centre.
Maintenance section personnel have been increased from four to 12 while vandalism-proof plumbing and electricity and CCTV systems have been installed. Malta also reported that sanitary conditions have been improved and that outdoor activities for detainees have increased.
The launch of a Migrant Health Service within the Detention Service in 2021 and the creation of a new clinic, Malta reported, resulted in a reduction of around 80 per cent of referrals to local health centres and of around 85 per cent to the Accident and Emergency Department at the national hospital.
In 2021 a Close Monitoring Unit (CMU) was set up to provide separate accommodation for high-risk persons, for those with specific medical conditions or for people who require separate accommodation for their mental wellbeing.
A Welfare Officer was also introduced in 2020 to maintain contact with and to deal with any complaints or issues, and a ‘complaints system’ has been in place since 2021 through which complaint forms and envelopes were disseminated at every compound.
As far as the conditions prevailing under Covid-19, Malta explained how all newly arrived migrants are now required to follow a period of mandatory quarantine. To avoid lengthy periods of quarantine, swab tests are carried out on the day of arrival and seven days later, in order to detect cases as early as possible.
The centre’s residents, Malta explained in June, have been offered the Covid-19 vaccine and 94 per cent had taken it.