Minors being hosted in the Dar Il-Liedna open shelter for unaccompanied children now live in fear of being arrested and detained at any moment following the arbitrary arrest of two Bangladeshi minors by the Principal Immigration Officer (PIO), based on controversial evidence that they were allegedly adults.
The two teenagers had been rescued at sea by the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) and were disembarked in Malta on the 26th of May 2022. They were directly taken to detention in the so-called “China House” detention centre in Ħal Far and declared that they are minors at a later stage. They were released on the 21st of June 2022 after being confirmed as minors following an interview with social workers from the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers (AWAS) which is the Agency responsible for carrying out such assessments for unaccompanied minors (UMAS).
However, on the 28th of June 2022, the two minors were arrested by the Immigration Police, who entered the shelter for minors Dar Il-Liedna operated by AWAS, and taken straight back to the Ħal Safi Detention Centre. These arrests were carried out after the Immigration Police allegedly found evidence that they were not minors. In Ħal Safi they were detained in a zone with adult males who were not from their country of origin, contrary to normal practice. On the same day AWAS issued a reassessment decision regarding their age without informing the minors.
This arrest caused great distress among the other minors resident in this shelter, who immediately called aditus foundation to ask if the same fate would fall upon them.
We immediately contacted AWAS and the Child Protection Services Director to inquire about the situation of the two minors and denounced the arbitrariness of the Principal Immigration Officer’s decision to enter a shelter operated by AWAS and to arrest its residents whereby no procedural safeguards were implemented to protect the interests of these minors.
After a lack of response by the Child Protection Services and AWAS, lawyers from the aditus legal team filed two appeals, one against the detention of the two minors and a further appeal on the reassessment decision issued by AWAS on the 30th June 2022.
On the 14th of July 2022, a hearing was held in front of Division II of the Immigration Appeals Board (IAB) in the presence of both minors along with AWAS and a representative of the Principal Immigration Officer (PIO). One of the appellants, visibly agitated and traumatised, burst into tears and confessed that he was scared about what would happen to him next.
The Board noted that no evidence had been presented by AWAS in support of their claim that the appellants are not minors. It further noted that that the PIO has no locus standi in age assessment proceedings and that AWAS has no legal competence to vary or review an Age Assessment decision after such decision has been pronounced. It was evident that the decisions issued by both AWAS and the PIO, the former being the Agency responsible for the guardianship and the protection of the rights of minors and the latter under the obligation to act within legal parameters and procedures, were ultra vires and contrary to the law to the detriment of the minors.
In view of above, the Board revoked the reassessment on the basis that it was ultra vires and confirmed that the appellants are minors, as per the original decision taken by AWAS. The Board ordered that the minors were to be released from detention immediately and returned to Dar il-Liedna.
The above case highlights a number of extremely worrying practices. Firstly, that the Maltese authorities continue to detain minors automatically upon arrival, a situation which was already highlighted by aditus at the beginning of the year. Secondly, that they do not hesitate to take arbitrary decisions, without any basis at law, which result in the unlawful arrest and detention of minors, who fall within the remit of the same state agencies tasked with the hosting of minors.
Furthermore, AWAS and the Child Protection Services, entities which are both responsible for the care of minors under the Minor Alternative Care Act (Chapter 601 of the Laws of Malta), failed to take action to protect them, with AWAS allowing for the arrest and detention of minors hosted in a shelter for young and vulnerable individuals.
aditus foundation calls upon the Government to establish appropriate safeguards and procedures in order to avert the repetition of these regrettable acts which have deeply traumatised the community hosted at Dar Il-Liedna.