Malta detains an average of 1,500 migrants per year in violation of international law. The migrants detained are overwhelmingly poor, fleeing violence and conflict, or in search of a better life. Yet when they reach Malta, an entrance point for the European Union, they are detained for up to 18 months, despite the fact that 93 percent of them are asylum seekers. Even vulnerable migrants—including children, those with mental and physical disabilities, and the elderly—are detained.
There is no evident justification for this prolonged detention, and during their detention migrants have no meaningful opportunity for judicial review in order to require the state to show such justification. The automated, indiscriminate, and blanket detention policy does not deter migrants from coming to Malta: most migrants who arrive by boat, typically crossing the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels with insufficient navigation systems, are not aiming to reach Malta but instead intend to travel to Italy.
Unaccompanied migrant children can travel for months in hazardous conditions before reaching Malta. Yet these resilient and resourceful children are not spared detention in Malta: rather, they are locked up for weeks or months until their age determination procedures are concluded. During this time, they are detained with unrelated adults, a further violation of international standards on detention of children.
Among those we interviewed who were found to be children in age determination proceedings, the average length of time spent in detention was 3.4 months. Children should only be detained as a last resort, and for the shortest period possible. Malta’s age determination proceedings must be restructured to prevent extended detention of children. Crucially, anyone who makes an application for age determination must be presumed a child until the outcome of the proceedings, and must be released from detention.
Malta must revise its migrant detention policies for adult and child migrants alike, and end the continued mental stress imposed on migrants kept in prolonged detention. Maltese laws should allow detention of migrants only in exceptional circumstances, with individualized determinations, and access to procedures to challenge detention.