In the forgotten camps

Along with the Italian island of Lampedusa, the Maltese Archipelago has become a favoured destination for hundreds of Africans fleeing the fighting in Libya. But on arrival, what they see of Europe is an unsanitary hangar where they vainly wait for political asylum. French news website Mediapart reports.

Published on 9 June 2011 at 14:48
Olmovich  | Malta - Entrance to the hangar at Hal Far

Having been confined in secure facilities on arrival, migrants who are identified as “vulnerable” are then sent to open refugee centres, one of which is reserved for families. Located close to the runways of an abandoned airport, Hal Far, as it is called, is at the end of a bus line and far from shops and ordinary homes.

It currently houses approximately thirty families who are awaiting international protection. Often damp, the air in the hangar is stifling in summer and freezing in winter.

Having left Tripoli with his wife and 16-month-old son, Dawit, a 35-year-old Ethiopian, is one its unfortunate residents. “I want to thank the Maltese authorities for stopping my boat from sinking and for looking after us,” he says before moving on to his main subject. “But I have to say this place is terrible, really terrible. There are Somalis, Ethiopians, Eritreans and some Ghanans and Algerians here, all of them families with children. The youngest is 18-months old. There is also a woman who gave birth when she arrived. They took her out of the detention centre, and when the baby was born they brought her back.”

The children fall sick, one after another

“Everyone is exhausted,” he continues. “So where do they put us? In this hangar, where everything is dirty and dangerous, and where we don’t have enough light. There are only two neon fixtures for the entire place, and no lights for inside the tents. The surfaces are oily, the drains aren’t working, and there are rats running around everywhere. Everything is toxic. The babies touch their mouths and their eyes and they get infections… they get sick. We have to take them to the hospital all the time. We saw an Italian doctor weep at the sight of them. The last time I went to the pharmacy for medicine for my son, I had to pay 39 euros. It can’t go on any longer. Worse still, the summer is coming. With the heat, it is going to be unbearable. We are grateful, but this place was not made for humans.”

Dawit repeats his story, he had no plans to come to Europe. An English teacher, he was forced to put to sea to escape the fighting, and also violence targeting Subsaharan Africans. Among the fathers sharing the same fate, there are a medical student, an IT engineer and a translator. Some of them, who fled their native countries to escape persecution, had even obtained refugee status on arrival in Libya. All of them had planned to continue living in there. And all of them came closed to dying on the voyage across the Mediterranean.

From the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to the aid organisations working at the site, everyone involved in Hal Far tells the same story. In the hangar, the tents provided by the Swiss Red Cross, set out in three rows of ten tents each, provide cramped accommodation for approximately 150 people, babies included, who are divided into family groups. A number of accomodation containers, each with 16 berths, that have been set up outside the building are used as segregated dormitories for men and women.

Céline Warnier de Wailly, is a member of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), a group that offers legal and social assistance to the refugees in Malta: “The children fall sick, one after another. The situation is becoming extremely serious,” she insists. “When the first families were moved there, their reaction was to say they wanted to go back to the detention centre! I have seen colleagues crying when they are distributing water, milk, pushchairs and nappies. It is not as if they came down with the last shower!”

Maltese authorities are organising a shortage of accommodation

Similar conditions prevail at another camp that local authorities and refugees call Tent Village, which is a few hundred metes form the hangar. Some of the big tents, which are set up in the open air, were damaged by storms last February. And even when they are in good condition, as the UNHCR reports, these shelters do not offer proper protection against the wind and the rain.“In the hangar and in Tent Village, conditions do not comply with acceptable standards, especially for families with children,” explains Fabrizio Ellul of UNHCR Malta in the administrative jargon particular to international organisations. “The toilet facilities and living conditions are not appropriate for such long stays, and these centres were never supposed to accommodate vulnerable people,” he adds.

Until now neither the hangar or the tents had been used to accommodate families. And in recent months, both camps had even been shut down when the boats stopped coming in the wake of the migration agreement between Libya and Italy. “For a year, with the exception of one boat last July, there were no more new arrivals,” points out Maria Pisani, of the Integra Foundation, which specialises on asylum issues in Malta. She also describes the situation at Hal Far as unbearable, arguing that their geographical isolation has resulted in the ghettoisation of refugees.

“We haven’t learned from the lessons of previous years,” she remarks. Nothing has been done to upgrade the facilities where conditions have even got worse.” She continues, “Instead of providing for the possibility of refugees settling and integrating where they are, the Maltese authorities are doing all they can to have them resettled and relocated in other European or western countries. That corresponds to their strategy. They organise a shortage of accomodation in permanent buildings so that people will be encouraged to leave.” In other words, Malta is maintaining an emergency situation to avoid settling new arrivals and to oblige its European partners to take them in.


Malta and Italy face refugee influx alone

The push-back policy for expelling migrants has been derailed since the “allied” bombardment of Libya began. Muammar Gadhafi has instructed his coastguard not to prevent them from leaving, which was one of the measures established by the Italian-Libyan agreement of August 2008 reviving overblown fears of an invasion. Malta, like Italy, has drawn attention to its lack of financial resources and an absence of European solidarity in what is termed “sharing the burden” of asylum in EU countries. In spite of the fighting, in which most of them are involved, the member states have yet to trigger the exceptional procedure for temporary protection — which is enshrined in a 2001 EU directive that has never yet been applied — to “ensure to welcome these refugees and to provide the infrastructure and services.”

As a result, Maltese and Italian authorities have to cope on their own with the influx, and they still have the option of refusing to grant refugee status on the basis that the person concerned should have returned to his or her native country. It is for this reason that Ethiopians, like Dawit, have little chance of obtaining asylum, unlike the Eritreans, Somalis and Darfur Sudanese, for whom UNHCR has issued explicit protection recommendations.

Carine Fouteau, Médiapart (Paris)

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