When dozens of refugees and migrants arrived on the shores of Malta in a wooden boat last summer, the officials who met them said they needed a medical check. The new arrivals were happy, elated, three told The Irish Times. They had sailed all the way from Libya. Years of abuse and torture, thousands of dollars in smugglers' fees and two days at sea had led to this.
They thought a medical check meant a brief stop-off before they were given an apartment, or at least somewhere safe to stay. Instead, they were put in a detention centre and locked up for three months.
"It's a very bad place," said Guesh Febretnsea, a 22-year-old from Eritrea, remembering his time in the Marsa centre.
Roughly 3,400 migrants and refugees arrived in Malta by boat in 2019. Activists and aid workers say the Maltese government is putting asylum seekers in detention centres because they’re overwhelmed by the number of new arrivals.
This week, the outgoing representative for the United Nations refugee agency, Kahin Ismail, said 1,400 people are being held illegally between the Marsa and Safi centres. Unaccompanied minors stay with adults, and some people have been held for as long as five months.
In response, Malta's home affairs minister Michael Farrugia said the government's requests for other EU countries to help have been ignored. "So far not even one arrangement for relocation has been offered," Farrugia said.
On Monday, more than 20 people were arrested in Safi following what police called riots, saying the group – which includes two minors – attempted to rush the gate of the centre. On Wednesday, a fire in the Marsa centre led to it temporarily being evacuated.
The area around the Marsa detention centre is multicultural, with shops selling Somali sweets and restaurants with injera, the bitter Horn of Africa pancakes. Across the road, Sudanese men sit by the water, drinking tea and catching up.
Being in Malta is a big problem. I've been here seven months... Everything is deteriorating
However, their lives are separate from the asylum seekers still locked up. When The Irish Times visited a few days before the fire, a man was leaning over a barrier outside the centre shouting across a river, trying to speak to someone he knew, who had his face pressed, listening, against the wire fence holding him in.
After months between the Marsa and Safi centres, many refugees are moved to open centre Hal Far, where they sleep confined in container boxes surrounded by barbed wire fences, but are allowed to leave during the day and given documents to work legally.
‘Too cold, no good’
In October, cars and a container were burnt in Hal Far after a dispute broke out around a drunk man not being allowed to enter, according to government statements. Refugees staying there say too many people are crammed in together and this incident was another sign they’re unsafe.
Like others in Hal Far, Febretnsea said he still hasn’t spoken to any Maltese people since he arrived in the country, apart from authorities who give him orders. He says he doesn’t think integration is possible in Malta and dreams of going to Luxembourg – he has seen pictures and “it’s beautiful”. He wants to train as a mechanic.
“The container is too cold, no good,” he said, pointing up at the boxes where he sleeps.
“Being in Malta is a big problem. I’ve been here seven months,” said Grimai Ala, another Eritrean who says he’s 17. “Everything is deteriorating.”
Without English, Ala said he’s finding it hard to find a job, though he had just returned from another search.
“We don’t want to be here anymore, we want to go forward. There is no more important thing than to go forward. There is no school [in Malta] and they force you to work. We want to study English.”
Ala paid $10,000 to make the journey this far, spending two years in Libya, including months in Libyan detention centres where human rights abuses are common. He joins an exodus of young people who have left Eritrea in recent years, escaping mandatory, indefinite military service in a country sometimes called the "North Korea of Africa".
Last year, more than 10,000 Eritreans sought asylum in Europe. “We left because we want freedom,” Ala said.
Those who have found jobs working in Malta’s bars or restaurants can be paid less than €5 an hour, and receive roughly €130 a month from the state.
“If you’re underage or overage, it’s the same, you have to go to work. No school, no study, no nothing,” said a Somali teenager who travelled on the same boat, but didn’t want to be named. “Everyone is trying to survive, chasing money, how could they make a community?”