Photo: European Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos and Maltese Interior Minister Carmelo Abela speak at the Lost in Migration Conference in Malta.

A response from the Maltese government is published underneath this article, along with a further response to that from the Destination Unknown campaign.

When two separate events were held in Malta on the future of children moving within and towards Europe last month, the island state’s Jekyll and Hyde approach to refugee rights truly came to the surface.

Maltese Interior Minister Carmelo Abela showed the positives of Maltese refugee policy during the Lost in Migration conference, organised by Missing Children Europe. The event was arranged to draw up recommendations on how best to protect children from disappearing when travelling towards and within the EU, and was attended by members of the Destination Unknown campaign.

“We’re doing a lot to protect migrant children from disappearing, but we need to do even more,” Mr Abela said, seeming to support stronger protection for child refugees and migrants. This optimism grew even further when Mr Abela stated Malta had stopped detaining child refugees and migrants on arrival.

Yet all was not as it seemed.

The same day Mr Abela declared how Malta was willing to do more to protect child refugees, national media reported how the current Maltese Council of the EU Presidency was exploring ways of returning migrants and refugees who attempted to enter Europe back to Libya.

This flies in the face of international law. Deliberately returning people back to a location where they are at risk of murder, rape, torture and abuse breaks the international principle of non-refoulement – which states that countries cannot return people to places where their human rights are at risk of violation.

Malta’s claim to have stopped detaining child refugees also does not hold up to scrutiny.

UNHCR Malta have stated that a newly created ‘initial reception centre’ is detaining children for up to 14 days for health screening and to make assessments of their age. The centre was supposed to only detain adults, but is now housing both families and unaccompanied minors too.

Terre des Hommes strongly supports the 17 recommendations produced at the Lost in Migration conference, which would put an end to both the cruel and inhumane detention of children within Europe, and the possibility of them being sent back into danger by two-faced European migration policies.

The recommendations were drafted and endorsed together with over 45 child rights organisations. They include improving accommodation and reception conditions, ensuring access to trained guardians for children and the right for children to be heard and informed.

These conclusions will be shared with EU and national politicians, European Commissioners and Heads of State, and policies will be monitored over the next year to see if progress is made to protect children in line with these recommendations.

Kopin, the Swiss Foundation of International Social Services and Terre des Hommes – together with other NGOs present at the conference – urge EU Member States to offer durable solutions to refugee children. These solutions must put the child first, take their voices into consideration and seek to reunite unaccompanied children with their families or other caregivers whenever it is possible.

In response to this article, the Destination Unknown campaign received the following statement from the Maltese Government:

3 March 2017

The article titled ‘Malta’s two-faced treatment of child refugees and migrants’, posted on the website Destination Unknown, makes statements concerning actions undertaken or purportedly planned by the Maltese Government which are either misleading or plainly false.

1. Malta denies exploring ways of returning refugees to Libya

In the first place, the article reproduces claims that the current Maltese Presidency of the Council of the European Union was exploring ways of returning refugees from Europe back to Libya “in the face of international law”. Malta categorically denies this claim. Persons enjoying refugee status or subsidiary protection status in Malta or elsewhere in the EU cannot be returned, as they enjoy rights of residence in accordance with the Geneva Convention and EU legislation. Both as Presidency and as a Member State, Malta has acted, and will continue to act, in line with the principle of non-refoulement.

Malta only seeks to return persons who have entered its territory irregularly or who are otherwise irregularly present, in compliance with the EU’s Return Directive. Such persons do not benefit from international protection, as they have not applied for such protection or else have applied but were found not to be deserving of protection. The return of such persons is fully in line with international and European legislation.

2. Malta denies claims of child migrant detention

The article also claims that migrant children are being detained for up to 14 days. It would have to be pointed out that Malta does not pursue a policy of detention vis-à-vis children and vulnerable migrants. The scope of Initial Reception Centres, contrary to what is implied in the article, is the accommodation of newly-arrived migrants for screening and medical clearance purposes. Government policy states that, as a rule, the stay at Initial Reception Centres shall be limited to a period of seven days, which may only be exceeded in exceptional cases. In any event, once medical clearance is obtained, the migrants concerned are required to leave the Initial Reception Centres. Such migrants may be detained in terms of the Reception Conditions Regulations or the Return Regulations if or as applicable, provided that a detention decision has been issued by the Principal Immigration Officer. Alternatively, if no detention decision is issued, such migrants would be able to settle in the community and/or offered accommodation in an Open Reception Centre. It should also be noted that the Maltese authorities do not issue detention decisions in respect of children or vulnerable migrants, which means that no such persons are ever accommodated in Detention Centres.

Finally, the Ministry would like to take this opportunity to point out that sensationalism of whatever sort is neither beneficial to beneficiaries of international protection nor to other migrants. It is important for claims to be verified by the Press before they are presented as facts, both as a core value and to maintain their own credibility.

In response to this, the Destination Unknown campaign sent the following statement to the Maltese Government:

9 March 2017

We thank the Ministry for its response and regret that the Ministry interprets this information as misleading.

As clarified in the Ministry’s response, a suspension of non-refoulment would in fact ‘fly in the face’ of international law just as stated above by the Ministry ‘persons enjoying refugee status of subsidiary protection status in Malta’ ‘cannot be returned’. The article does not claim that the government will embark on this, solely that ‘national media reported how the current Maltese Council of the EU Presidency was exploring ways of returning migrants and refugees who attempted to enter Europe back to Libya’.

However, we would like to point out that according to the Destination Unknown campaign, non-refoulment does not solely apply to people who have obtained a status of protection but also to asylum seekers. We here refer to the UNHCR Advisory Opinion on the Extraterritorial Application of Non-Refoulment Obligations under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol:

The protection against refoulment under Article 33(1) applies to any person who is a refugee under the terms of the 1951 Convention, that is, anyone who meets the requirements of the refugee definition contained in Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention. It follows that the principle of non-refoulment applies not only to recognized refugees, but also to those who have not had their status formally declared. The principle of non-refoulment is of particular relevance to asylum-seekers. As such persons may be refugees, it is an established principle of international refugee law that they should not be returned or expelled pending a final determination of their status.

As to the second concern raised by the Ministry, (‘Malta denies claims of child migrant detention’), we are aware of the scope of the Initial Reception Centre. However the Destination Unknown Campaign together with the End Immigration Detention of Children campaign urge states to adopt alternatives to detention that fulfill the best interests of the child and allow children to remain with their family members and/or guardians in non-custodial, community-based contexts while their immigration status is being resolved. UNHCR’s position in its Guidelines on the Applicable Criteria and Standards relating to the Detention of Asylum-Seekers and Alternatives to Detention, is that children should not be detained for immigration related purposes, irrespective of their legal/migratory status or that of their parents, and detention is never in their best interests.

It is worth emphasising that the article here is referring to the concern that the IRC for Minors and Families potentially holds unaccompanied children together with adults accompanying other children. We feel that this could potentially exposed unaccompanied minors to risk. This information was verified by UNHCR.

We agree that claims need to be verified before being published, which is a guiding principle for all our published work.

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