Forced to abandon the war-torn city of Damascus after his home and business were bombed, Iyad Faroud Al Rousan picked up his family and fled Syria through Lebanon and Egypt, finally arriving in Libya, where he discovered an opportunity to escape to Europe.
“I was given a telephone number,” refugee Al Rousan told BBC. “They wanted $1,300 to take everyone in my family on the boat — so expensive.”
Desperate, the family paid the fee and was taken to a small house where they spent ten days waiting with hundreds of other immigrants for the boat’s departure.
“The conditions were very, very bad,” Al Rousan said. “But we are escaping war, so what other choice is there?”
The boat left in mid-October carrying 300 adults and 100 children. After an hour at sea, a ship claiming to be the Libyan police began shooting at them. The crowded vessel started sinking and then capsized in the rough sea. Frantic refugees fought each other for life jackets, and ultimately, 35 people drowned.
Boats from Malta arrived and rescued the survivors, including Al Rousan’s entire family. But their journey was not over — the family was placed in a refugee detention center once they landed in Malta.
European law requires immigrants to apply for asylum in the first European country they enter. Under Malta’s blanket immigration policy, every refugee is placed in a detention center upon arrival while his or her asylum claim is processed. Claims can take up to 12 months to process and detainees whose claims are rejected can be held for up to 18 months. The country has three closed detention centers and seven open centers.
“Today my son said, ‘I have nothing. I am empty. I have no money, no clothes, nothing. No one helps us. No one,’” Al Rousan said.
Marine Schlesser, a Red Cross worker who volunteers at several of Malta’s detention centers said Al Rousan’s story is common. More than 1,500 individuals have arrived in Malta by boat since January 2013 and 1,800 refugees came to Malta in 2012. There are currently 9,015 refugees and asylum seekers in Malta, most of them coming from Somalia and Eritrea.
“Once these families arrive in detention, the nightmare continues,” Schlesser said in a phone interview with Global Journalist. “The conditions are completely inhumane. More than 30 people sleep crowded in the same room on old, unclean mattresses.”
She said the centers take a toll on immigrants’ mental health.
“People stay in these conditions for months and months without knowing what will happen to them,” she said. “If you put someone in a cage like an animal, after awhile they begin to behave like animals. There are a lot of fights and suicide attempts.”
In July 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Malta’s detention centers violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which prohibits the inhuman or degrading treatment. The court of Human Rights ruled that Malta “needs to adopt new measures to improve the conditions of detained asylum seekers and allow them to obtain speedy review of the lawfulness of their detention.”
Maltese officials say they do not have the capacity to address such a high number of asylum seekers.
"Malta is the smallest state in the EU, and we are carrying a burden that is much bigger than any other country," Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told The Telegraph in July.
The law requiring migrants to apply for asylum in their country of entry was drafted long before Malta was inducted into the EU in 2004, and Maltese officials are calling for international reform to more evenly share the economic burden of immigration.
After 339 people drowned on Oct. 3 when a boat carrying migrants sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat renewed his call for international change.
"This is not just another wake-up call for Europe. This is the time for action,” Muscat said. "This is a European problem, not a problem for Italy or Malta only.”
Following the Lampedusa tragedy, a European Union meeting was held on Oct. 25 to address immigration reform. Officials developed a timeline to create concrete legislation. An immigration taskforce will assess the situation and report back at a summit in early December. Officials will meet again in June of next year to discuss “asylum and migration issues in a broader and longer-term policy perspective” and “strategic guidelines for further legislative and operational planning.”
Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta launched a military and humanitarian response that includes tripling air and sea presence in the area.
"We will work so that Europe tackles [immigration problems] but on the other hand we will immediately do our bit," he said.
Letta said he considered the EU actions taken last week “sufficient” but some human rights groups said changes are not coming quickly enough. Nicolas Beger, a spokesman for Amnesty international said the inaction “painfully shows that the expressions of sadness and solidarity were nothing more than crocodile tears.”
“Proposed measures focus yet again on enhanced border surveillance, which will simply lead to people taking riskier routes to reach Europe,” Beger said. “We are deeply alarmed that no concrete steps have yet been taken to prevent the hundreds of men, women and children seeking a safe life in Europe from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.”
Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said he was unhappy with the EU’s timeline and demanded leaders take action towards concrete reform by December.
"Malta is not a superpower; Italy cannot do everything on its own and Europe cannot agree on the rules of engagement,” he said. “We simply cannot go on with Italy and ourselves carrying the burden alone.”