What the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner told Malta about migrants/refugees.

In a letter addressed to the Minister for Home Affairs and National Security of Malta, Mr. Michael Farrugia, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Nils Muižnieks, urged Malta to improve the protection and integration of migrants, while appreciating Malta’s policy changes to end the automatic detention of migrants, its participation in the EU refugee relocation programme and the recently-adopted migrant integration strategy.

The Commissioner highlighted the need to lift obstacles to migrant integration, such as lack of housing, the distinction between refugees and beneficiaries of other forms of international protection, migrants’ access to legal employment, access to family reunification, access of long-term residents to citizenship.

Furthermore, the Commissioner called for the introduction of judicial review of Refugee Appeals Board decisions.

In particular, the Commissioner expressed concerns that the decisions of the Refugee Appeals Board they suffer from shortcomings due to a lack of comprehensive reasoning.

Mr. Muižnieks welcomed the improvements in Ħal Far reception centre but emphasized that reception centres should only be transitional accommodation solutions, since migrants and beneficiaries of international protection ought to have access to adequate housing. The lack of adequate housing creates an obstacle to integration, and it may create tensions between migrants and the local population.

In order to overcome obstacles and guarantee adequate housing, Malta should give full effect to Article 31 of the European Social Charter (ESC) concerning right to housing, and Article 16 of the ESC concerning the right of the family to social, legal and economic protection. Besides giving full effect to these articles, Malta should accept Article 19 of the ESC concerning the right of migrant workers and their families to protection and assistance.

The Commissioner noted Malta’s distinctions between refugees and beneficiaries of other forms of the international protection  in aspects of entitlement to social security benefits and family reunification. By giving full effect to Article 13(4) of the ESC, Malta would guarantee that all foreign nationals are entitled to emergency medical and social assistance.

As family reunification is one of the most crucial factors in integration, Malta should ensure quick and effective access to family reunification for all, also for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, in conformity with the right to family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Currently, beneficiaries of subsidiary protection are not entitled to family reunification under Maltese law, which creates an unfair distinction and disadvantages persons with subsidiary protection.

According to the Commissioner’s letter, other obstacles for migrant integration include difficulties accessing the legal employment market and access of long-term residents to citizenship. Bureaucratic obstacles to migrants’ access to the labour market should be removed in order ensure integration, which can also be seen as an opportunity for the national economy.

Furthermore, Malta should accede to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, as well as to ratify the 1997 European Convention on Nationality.

In his reply, the Minister for Home Affairs and National Security said that Malta is in the process of revising its migration and asylum systems. The Minister highlighted the improvements already made to reception centres, and the continuing work on them. The process of revising migration and asylum systems will include efforts to maintain family unity, and will look at ways of improving the current appeals system.

Since the Commissioner raised concerns regarding the lengthy and unfair family reunification process, the Minister noted that Malta’s current regime is compliant with the provisions of EU Directive 2003/86/EC, which provides for family reunification for refugees, and Directive 2011/95/EU (Qualification Directive) which provides for family unity, and that efforts are being made to maintain family unity in the contexts of resettlement and relocation programmes, as well as during Search and Rescue operations.

Furthermore, the Minister emphasized that the process of revising migrant and asylum systems will include improving the current appeals system so that Malta’s system would be in line with international standards.  Moreover, in relation to the Commissioner’s concern regarding the lack of asylum-related training and capacity of the Refugee Appeals Board Members, the Minister referred to planned training with the European Asylum and Support Office (EASO).

We welcome Commissioner Muižnieks’ letter to the Maltese authorities, particulalry since it reflects concerns we have often expressed in relation to the situation of migrants and refugees in Malta.

We’re of course keen to follow the progress referred to by the Minister in his response, particularly the work aimed at improving the quality of Refugee Appeals Board procedures and decisions.

This article was prepared by Emma Pahkala, Office Intern.