Maltese Voices On Detention
Hal Safi, Malta. “Mario Schembri? Who…?” the soldier dressed in military green and storm proof-looking glasses says. “He’s Head of Operations working at the Detention Services” I try as politely as I can while handing him my passport. “We have a meeting booked at 1pm, but I’m a bit early so…” Mario Schembri’s office is located inside the military premises of Safi Barracks, a stone’s throw from Malta International Airport. For the first time in an interview setting I have to register with my passport, and an escort transport is coming to pick me up. The white minibus with DETENTION SERVICES written on both sides arrives and the driver in an olive green uniform stops right in front of the gates, exchanges a few words with the soldier, then gazes at me before he tells me to jump in.
Director Mario Schembri (part 1): “We are the keepers”
As I get out of the car and approach a typical limestone building, a man in his sixties opens one of the doors and invites me inside. Apparently this is Director Mario Schembri and his ground floor Head of Operations office. The walls are light and decorated sparingly. A mix of religious icons, calendars, memos and what looks like a photo of his wife. The background layer of twittering birds forms a particular, almost hypnotising, atmospheric framework to the moment. I’m here to ask questions on of one of the notorious detention centers in Europe, not often touted by the authorities as still in use, nor cheered on by human rights groups or the media. Before the interview begins I ask if I may take photos inside, which I may not. “But outside is okey,” he says while I make sure it is still fine that I draw and audio-record him during our conversation. Schembri nods to both. “The Detention Service hold immigrants who have either overstayed or have invalid or no documentation while being in Malta. Obviously they are handled by immigration police and then they are brought over to detention for a period of time. Until their papers are in order, or else, removal order or deportation order is executed. So, their period of detention here can vary from 24 hours to a maximum of three months, which is rather long when you are here for the first time. But that is laid down by legislation and it is very rare that somebody, a detainee, stays here for such a long time. Because every three or four weeks they come up for review, every case individually. And usually when there are no reasons to keep the person any longer, he is given temporary status until all his papers are in order,” Mario Schembri says, seemingly at ease with answering such simple questions on the Detention Services.
Do you bring people here directly from customs at the airport then, or who does that?
“The immigration police does that job, we are the keepers. In fact, this is a closed centre, a closed accommodation centre,” Schembri continues.
So are the individuals who stay here not allowed to come and go by themselves?
“No. When they are given temporary asylum status for humanitarian reasons, they are transferred to Open Centres. Which are totally different from here. There are accommodation areas where they can come and go out as they please. Until such time that they find a place of their own. […] Some of them take up the voluntary return schemes that are offered by IOM and UNHCR, and they return back to their country voluntarily. They are even supported by means of money to set up a business when they get back home and things like that. […] We’ve only got 14 here now” Schembri says. “It’s been like this for the past two years. Why? Because the large influx numbers of ‘boat people’ coming into Malta’s shores have decreased,” he says referring to the typical news media coverage of vessels, or rubber dinghies, with migrants in the Mediterranean. “This is because routes have changed and they are leaving Libya from further up, or rather further west. So the present route now according to the GPS-directions that they are giving when they leave, go directly to Lampedusa or mainland Italy. It is their intention to reach mainland Europe, and then proceed to the northern countries. Germany, Holland, Sweden and Norway nowadays as well!”
And how is this affecting Malta you mean?
“Nowadays we have asylum seekers coming in differently to the country”, Schembri replies. “They come in via the airport with regular passports or sometimes false passports. Once they are here, they are obviously detected by the Immigration Police and held at Immigration at the airport. As soon as they are held they declare that they want to apply for asylum, then the Refugee Commissioner steps in and the process for asylum starts. If they don’t have proper documentation, they are brought into detention where they will await the decision of the Refugee Commissioner,” Mario Schembri says. “We also have others coming in to the airport on a regular basis from Turkey, Syria, Iraq. From varied places. They come in with regular visas, proper passports and once they are here they apply for asylum for some reason or the other. It could be economic, it could be because of battles or wars or any other strife in their home country. People that come in with proper documents do not come into detention, but they live normally here in Malta until they get their asylum papers or a refusal. We have a flow of 160 per month of these people.”
But if these people with what you call proper passports – if they are caught using false documents – then what happens?
“That’s different! Because using false documents is a criminal offence. So they are taken up by the Immigration Police. Usually they are charged before the law courts here, and that’s usually a 24hr thing. The courts issue a removal order or a deportation order, and that’s why they end up here. Once they have a removal order, they usually apply for asylum cause they have a right to apply for asylum. And also they have a right to appeal the removal decision once within four days. But the hearing can be spread over a couple of hearings,” Schembri continues.
So, there are not just people from one country who stay here in closed detention?
“No, no, no. We’ve had people from Japan, Philippines, Eastern Europe, Africa, Syria, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and all the Western states of Africa. We even had one from America” Schembri says while I cannot help but reflect on how the conversation sounds like an interview with a CEO or a hotel manager rather than a public official. “We also have what we call ’Dublin returnees’. There’s a special legislation regarding that. When an asylum seeker starts the asylum process in a European country, he can only continue the asylum process in the first country that he applied for. Now, some of them do move about Europe and some of them end up here. When they are here they also apply for asylum, but it is easily found out through the EURODAC [the EU data register of fingerprints for asylum seekers] where that they have applied for it in another country. Then the Dublin return procedure kicks off and they have to be returned back to their first country, the first European state that they applied for asylum in. […] According to international law you cannot deport someone to a specific country unless you have authority from that country that is accepting him or her. For instance, we have countries, in Africa mostly, that are difficult to deal with. Mali for example. Even though they send national delegations from Mali to interview people that are held in Malta – and they come up with a decision that ‘these are confirmed Mali subjects so we’ll be taking them back’ – months later we still have no documentation from them!”
Since you mentioned Mali, wasn’t there a big thing in the media recently when 32 asylum seekers were arrested?
“That is exactly what happened! And they were kept here for nearly four months. For nothing. According to European legislation they cannot be kept in detention because their deportation is not imminent. So they were given temporary humanitarian asylum status, which means you are free to move about in the country that it is issued. […] You cannot go to any other European state with that document, but you can work here on a normal basis and you can also have any other state aid that is applicable to European citizens. The only condition is that if your deportation is available, you will be arrested again and then deported. Which is a very rare occurrence. […] Or they have established ties here. […] There were 22 of them that were confirmed as Mali citizens. But documentation from Mali never arrived. So their deportation was no longer imminent” Schembri explains. “They are still staying here. They are all back to their usual way of life. In fact the oldest one living here had been in Malta for the past 11 years, and the one with the shortest stay was three years! So they had regular work, they had girlfriends and some of them even had children here,” he states and gives the impression of not being fully content with how these individuals were treated by the various authorities and regulations.
Teacher/activist Jean-Paul Borg and researcher Mark Micallef (part 2): Society is affected by detention policies too
One person who visited Safi Barracks detention center to see one of the arrested Malis, is Jean-Paul Borg (JP). Getting connected through acquaintances, we had booked a meeting near the famous Mosta Rotunda. At the nearby Maltese bar we grab a table and JP begins to tell his story: “The Malis do not want to appear in public any more, they are busy with trying to get back to their lives…” JP explains. He’s dressed in a classic black and yellow-striped Adidas outfit, and the story he is about to tell starts on November 15, 2016, when his friend – and the other Malis – suddenly found themselves under a detention order. JP, who initially explained about volunteering with a local NGO, says he has always been the engaged type, but wasn’t prepared for “the state of shock that struck everyone who knew the Malis when they were arrested!” He describes how they had become a given part of society, and all of a sudden they were just gone, temporarily it would turn out, but still. “Like taken away from their everyday lives!” he continues by recalling the events. “I was being a teacher, and involved with Integra foundation, who are creating inclusive activities for migrants. I got to know one of the students personally, we became friends, and then that day he calls from the closed detention center at Safi Barracks!” JP exclaims.
What was it like when you visited your friend in detention?
“If you visit someone who is being kept in detention it really affects your world,” JP says visibly dismayed of recalling the occasion. “As the guys were about to renew their proper permits, they were refused and a deportation order was executed instead! It was awful, you know, some even had family here… When I first visited the center in Hal Safi it was very difficult to get access, because they usually don’t let people in, but perhaps since I’m from here they were less not so strict. After that time, and since I had gone public with what I had witnessed inside, the access to see my friend was much harder the second time,” he states. “I had shared with the media on the conditions inside” he says and shows his Facebook status from a couple of weeks prior to Christmas. On the picture from inside detention, was a very scarce meal, supposedly breakfast, consisting of a small baguette, one boiled egg and a white plastic mug of coffee. According to JP it was awful to witness and when he heard that there were other migrants being kept in the center nowadays he expressed himself in discontent: “Who are these people? How many are there? For what…?”
Mark Micallef (portrayed in the drawing below) is a researcher on migratory flows and human smuggling in Libya. In our interview the other day he also posed concerns on the societal consequences of today’s detention policies. “The future in Europe, especially for those who have had their asylum rejected but who cannot be sent back to their home country for some reason, looks very dull! And I don’t want to judge if it’s morally wrong or right as it is now, but I do feel like the politicians oversee a strategic perspective here! In the way they handle irregular migrants and failed asylum seekers today, how will the next generation relate? The authorities will have to deal with this sooner or later, so why not now? I honestly think it’s just stupid” Mark Micallef says.
Director Mario Schembri (part 3): “One never knows what’s going to happen. We might have an influx of migrants this night!”
Correlating a similar line of thought as Mark Micallef, The Head of Operations at Safi Barracks, Mario Schembri points to the development in Europe for those who get a failed asylum as a “vacuum”, or social limbo:
“That is one big problem that the whole of Europe is facing at the moment” he says. “Because, what is applicable to Malta is applicable to all the other European states, and they have the same problem. What shall we do with those that are denied asylum? According to the regulations we have to send them back but there are other regulations that require a ’go ahead’ from the receiving country. […]They cannot remain in this sort of vacuum, you’re either going to be kept here or sent back! […]And asylum is only granted when you have a set of particular conditions. […] Others, who do not satisfy all or most of the conditions, are refused asylum but are still being kept here. Maybe they are given asylum after five years…so what shall we do? Which is the best policy? And that is a problem that the European states have to decide sooner or later. Because as it is, there is an open gateway to Europe.”
Where is this gateway you mean?
“Everywhere. Because once you are in, they won’t send you back. If your mother country doesn’t confirm that you are from that country, or does not confirm that they want you back, or are willing to accept you back with proper documentation – then you are stuck here. You might as well consider yourself as a European as it is. On the other hand, the European states do not want such a condition so they have to come up with something drastic I think. Or send everyone back” Schembri says with a curt voice.
Do you see the solution of having detention centres as something good?
“No, I don’t think so. It was in the past, but I don’t think it’s viable any longer. I mean, how long are you going to keep these people in detention? Let’s say you keep them for maximum 18 months, like it was three years ago for most people. But they are not granted asylum afterwards, and they cannot be deported. Because they don’t have necessary documentation, and the country that they claim to be from hasn’t confirmed it. So why do we keep them in detention in the first place if the outcome is going to be the same? It’s easier even on state finances, to help them and support them when they are in the streets along with the regular population, than catering fully for their upkeep here for 18 months at a stretch.”
So why do you think detention is still being used? It’s not just in Malta, right?
“Well Italy, according to the recent news, just built another 50 detention centres. After the fall of Prime Minister Renzi, the Italian parliament decided that all those that do not qualify for asylum were to be sent back. But that is easier said than done, like I have just explained! You can do it with some countries, but other countries are impossible. […] And at administering it keeping them there, apart from the financial burden. So, what’s the use of having more detention centres and keeping them with all the problems that you face? Obviously it is more popular with the population – not just the Maltese, with all the European populations – when these immigrants are kept segregated, rather than being with the community at large. But that doesn’t make sense; because somehow you’re still going to release them.”
Do people feel more safe when the migrants are kept apart?
“No. [clearing his throat] Not safe. They are more at ease, or they think that something is being done. Because most of the Europeans do not want Africans, or rather non-Europeans, living with them and taking most of these security money, the social services money from them. They have been supporting the system for such a long time. Even their forefathers and any other relatives, so they feel that it is inappropriate. […] Some of them come – not ‘some’ of them – quite a lot of them, come from Sicily to Malta. They work here and have a residence permit in Sicily. And every two months or three months they go back. They renew the ‘Permesso di soggiorno’ [residency permit] issued from Italy, and they come back here to work. […] They are within Europe, and they have a right to move about, so that is a problem that Europe has brought about on itself. Because of this Schengen procedure,” Mario Schembri says.
What would be a better solution according to you then?
“At least to record their movement. The Schengen process does away with all this. That you are no longer required to fill in immigration disembarkation or embarkation cards, like it used to. […] At least it should bring back that situation. Literally remove the Schengen procedure!” […] “Look at what happened in Sweden years ago. They declared that it was prepared to give asylum to all third country nationalities that arrived in that country. Nowadays it’s impossible to stop them! Because you cannot move the clock back. The damage has already been done…”
In what way?
“…that those given asylum have every right to stay in Sweden. And because of their right to stay, they can also bring in relatives.” A bit surprised by Schembri’s unprovoked rage on a UN-defined right for refugees, I tell him how Sweden changed its reunification policy a couple of years back. “Good!” he says. “At least that is one step in the right direction. It used to be a common practice that if you managed to have a relative of yours in any one country, because of family ties you were granted entry into that country and eventually asylum. That is one step in a positive direction. Because it limits, like a sort of damage control. I’m mentioning damage in a figurative way, because no actual damage is being done. But the perception of the European population is that we should no longer accept any more immigrants” Mario Schembri says convincingly. “Let’s keep what we have, cause they are here to stay! They have settled, but no more. But it’s easier said than done.”
If we return to what you do here at the detention center – what is your impression, how do the detainees experience their stay here?
”It’s a very difficult situation for them. First of all you can easily see that. And like I mentioned, most of them come from a long way. They leave everything behind, and they work their way up through the African continent with a final stop, quite an active stop, in Libya. Where they await in different camps for the opportunity to cross over to Europe. Obviously it costs money and, lives…lots of lives, in fact. And so they end up in detention here. But, I don’t think they mind it that much. The migrants themselves, they are sort of oblivious. Their way of reasoning is that – at least from what we manage to understand from talking to them – ‘If I stay in my country, I will die for sure, because of this and this or If you don’t do this they will kill you!’ Whether that is true or not, one has to be in their situation to decide, and then they say ‘if I stay in my country, I am dead and If I try and cross over to Europe I might do it. I might die, but I might do it’ Schembri states bluntly.
So what can they do when they are inside, is there anything to do?
“Yes!” Schembri says with certainty. “They can exercise some sports. Like basketball, netball, football and they can watch TV all day if they want to. They have a library with books to read. And they have music to listen to, but also some board games or computer games. Soon they’ll be able to – here in this centre – use Facebook as well. For a short period of time, not the whole day!” Schembri says while tapping with his fingers on the table.
Can they use their cellphones?
“No cellphones, no. They are not allowed. For security purposes though, but they have access to telephones. Fixed line telephones and anyone can answer them. It is not filtered in any way. It’s quite free, you can say anything you please on it. But cell phones nowadays are computers, they are not simple phones. So they are a security problem, whereas a normal computer connected to the internet, can be protected security wise. On the other hand, we do not think it is feasible to block all cellular communication. Because that would create a dead zone, not just for the immigrants, but for a larger part. […] Even if you don’t have any wifi in the vicinity […] at least they are considered to be a security threat, up till now. So it’s better to control them,” Schembri argues. “We also have visits by the Red Cross Malta. They offer communications via controlled mobile sets that are simply phones. They don’t even have a camera in them. And they provide a free service once or twice a week. They go to the immigrants, speak with them and offer […] free telephone calls up to five minutes per person to anywhere they please. […] We have other NGOs that come in here and offer various services, mostly they offer legal aid.”
But how come journalists are not allowed access into the detainees?
“They used to. We used to have journalists from all over Europe, but they were coming in at such a rate that the immigrants themselves were complaining about it” Director Schembri states. “This is what they used to say: ‘Are we zoo animals? Why are media people from everywhere coming to take photographs of us to make money and we are still kept here in detention?’ Their message was not being sent out properly. […] So they weren’t getting the freedom they wanted from these media coverage and interviews. […] Hence we decided,” Schembri hesitates. “The government of Malta decided. That no media will be brought into detention.[…] Only occasionally we have a request from the media, and apart from that we don’t have the numbers that we used to have. Up till 2013 the place was full, and we had about 2900 here. Nowadays, like I said we have only 14 today and last year the largest number we had was 26 or 25 at one time. So, why would they want to come here?” Director Schembri chuckles.
How do you know if someone who stays here is okay or not?
“Well I speak to them every day. My staff are on the lookout for things like that. We have social workers that come in here and work with them. There’s a ‘detainees board of visitors’ as well, who supervise this, the system. The immigrants have legal aid any time they want to, there’s an appeals board, something that wasn’t there two years ago. They are visited by a doctor and nurses each day. […] So if something is quite not right, we are alerted immediately. […] However, when the place was completely full it was nearly impossible to manage it. You couldn’t go in for these details like I mentioned. Now because of the limited numbers you can offer a better service.”
Did you see a reason for having a detention center before?
“In those days, yes. Because detention was considered to be a deterrent so that immigrants would know that they were going to be kept in detention for a year and a half. So they would try and keep away from Malta, but nowadays that’s no longer applicable because the route is totally different. It is straight to Lampedusa or to mainland Italy, so one cannot say it is a deterrent any more. In fact, detention is minimum now.”
Is it still reasonable to have it open though?
“One never knows what’s going to happen. We might have an influx of migrants this night! We are quite close to the route, and even though the immigrants themselves do not want to come in here, bad weather can easily throw in here. Or they might have to be rescued. In fact when we have emergency rescues, like that people are injured or in imminent danger of their lives. Then they are brought over here, not to Italy, because the hospitals here are closer.”
And then some of them apply for asylum here?
“They apply for asylum here. Although the system has changed, that there are no longer immigrants coming in – the boat people – are no longer brought into detention first. Now there is an Initial Reception Center (IRC), which is a mix between an open and a closed center. You are kept there for medical purposes only until medical screening is undertaken. This is to make sure that you are not sick with TBE, AIDS, HIV or things like that. It usually takes three days. This entails that unless the immigration police have a valid reason to keep someone in detention, they are sent out to open centres instead of being brought to us. […] A new IRC is being built in Hal Far, but it will be ready in two years. It’s going to be big, and it’s going to be a one-stop-shop really for immigrants. They’ll have immigration police, Refugee Commissioner, doctors, health services – everything in that place!” Schembri says. ▪️
by David Johansson