As of 1 July 2021, all asylum seekers and other non-EU residents in Malta became eligible for receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. Previously, only people who could provide a valid residence permit were eligible, according to the European Commission: “From 1 July only an identity document and provision of personal details (which are kept strictly confidential) is required in order to register for vaccination.”
Malta’s decision to ensure confidentiality of an individual’s identity documents during vaccination procedures appears to represent a firewall between health and immigration-related administrations. Erecting such firewalls has been urged by health professionals across the globe as a critical step for effectively addressing the pandemic even as many countries have refused to do so.
Despite these policy developments, Malta’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers has repeatedly come under intense criticism. In February 2021, for example, the Jesuit Refugee Service issued a report detailing the impact of COVID-19 measures on immigration detention policies and practices in seven EU Member States where JRS has partners, including Malta, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Romania. Regarding Malta, JRS found that the situation for immigration detainees worsened as a result of the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, it was legally possible to detain people arriving by boat for up to 70 days in Malta on public health grounds, with some exceptions for vulnerable groups. After the COVID-19 outbreak, the Maltese Superintendent of Public Health decided to detain for quarantine purposes all people arriving by boat until they were tested for COVID-19. In practice this meant that all new arrivals were held in detention for periods extending long beyond the 70-day limit. JRS also reported that detainees had their telephones taken away from them, cutting them off from vital communication with their families and the outside world.
Shortly after the JRS report was released, the European Court of Human Rights issued its judgement on the case of a Nigerian national, Joseph Feilazoo, held in immigration detention in Malta during the COVID-19 pandemic (Feilazoo v. Malta), which considered the lawfulness and conditions of detention and COVID-19 measures in detention centres. The court, in a 11 March 2021 ruling, found that Malta had breached Article 3 of the ECHR with respect to holding the applicant in an enclosed container, much of the time in excessive isolation, without fresh air, natural light or outdoor exercise for an unduly long period of time, without any likelihood of being removed to Nigeria; it also ruled that given the health risks, the applicant should not have been held in COVID-19 quarantine conditions with other newly arrived migrants; and that Malta had impeded Feilazoo’s right to individual petition by restricting his communication with the court and failing to provide adequate legal representation.
After serving a prison sentence for drug-related offences, Feilazoo’s request to be returned to Spain was turned down as he was told he no longer had the right to reside in Spain and he was kept in immigration detention pending removal back to Nigeria. Feilazoo was moved from prison to immigration detention on 14 September 2019, where he was held for 14 months until he was released because the Nigerian authorities refused to issue him with travel documents and did not cooperate with the Maltese government’s request for his deportation.
In September 2020, the Times of Malta reported that a group of men from Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt (and other “Arabs”) held at Safi detention centre for between 3 to 11 months, were begging to be returned home because of the appalling living conditions and the long delays in processing their asylum applications. In a video sent to the Times of Malta, the men describe living in overcrowded, unhygienic living conditions, with a lack of medical care, clothing and nutritious food and the devastating impact this was having on their physical and mental health, including several suicide attempts. Asked to comment on the video, the Home Affairs Ministry justified some of these practices, arguing that a steep increase in irregular migration had led to unprecedented pressure on migrant reception centres and services and contributed to delays in processing cases.
Also in September 2020, Malta Today reported that a riot had broken out at the Safi detention centre and five detainees attempted to escape the facility. One of them was shot by a private security guard and sustained minor injuries. 27 detainees were later arrested and charged by police for causing damage during the riot and injuring police officers who tried to contain it.
- European Commission, “Malta: COVID-19 Vaccination Now Open to Asylum Seekers and Third-Country Nationals,” 13 July 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/migrant-integration/news/malta-covid-19-vaccination-now-open-to-asylum-seekers-and-third-country-nationals
- A. Volou, “Feilazoo v. Malta: Immigration Detention in the Context of the Covid-19 Pandemic and Beyond and the Right of Individual Petition,” Strasbourg Observers, 12 May 2021, https://strasbourgobservers.com/2021/05/12/feilazoo-v-malta-immigration-detention-in-the-context-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-and-beyond-and-the-right-of-individual-petition/
- Jesuit Refugee Service Europe, “COVID-19 and Immigration Detention: Lessons (Not Learned)”, February 2021 https://jrseurope.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/2021/02/Report-Covid-19-and-immigration-detention.pdf
- Times Malta, “Watch: Migrants in Covert Video Beg to be Sent Back Home: Detainees Speak of Terrible Conditions at Safi Barracks,” 6 September 2020, https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/migrants-in-covert-video-beg-to-be-sent-back-home.816459
- Malta Today, “Safi Detention Centre Riot: Private Security Guard Shot Migrant Who Tried to Escape,” 18 September 2020, https://www.maltatoday.com.mt/news/national/104793/safi_detention_centre_riot_private_security_guard_shot_migrant_who_tried_to_escape#.YO8TrdWFPjD
- Detainees Sitting on Bunkbeds in the Overcrowded Safi Barracks, (Times Malta, “Watch: Migrants in Covert Video Beg to be Sent Back Home: Detainees Speak of Terrible Conditions at Safi Barracks,” 6 September 2020 https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/migrants-in-covert-video-beg-to-be-sent-back-home.816459)