This campaign is calling for a much needed forward-looking debate between all stakeholders, about the best way to deal with the reality of rejected asylum seekers who are living in our midst, and for concrete action by the government to address this reality.
Their presence is the result of our migration history – which was partly shaped by circumstances completely beyond our control, and partly by the legal and policy strategies we chose to adopt to deal with this reality.
Since 2002, there has been a significant increase in the number of people arriving in Malta seeking asylum, largely as a result of the surge in the number of undocumented migrants arriving by boat from Libya. The majority of those who sought asylum during this period were granted protection. Although since 2002 those whose applications were rejected could, in theory at least, be returned, in practice return often proved impossible. As a result, rejected asylum seekers were left ‘stranded’ in Malta, with very limited rights, unable to go forward or backwards.
THPN was created in 2010, to combat the problem of stranded migrants: rejected asylum seekers who had been in Malta for at least four years and who could not be returned to their country of origin for reasons outside of their control. To qualify for THPN, those applying had to show evidence that they had made efforts to integrate and/or work in Malta.
If they got THPN, they were given a 1-year residence permit, a travel document, a 1-year permit to work in Malta, free education up to the compulsory school age limit and free access to healthcare. THPN was renewable on a yearly basis as long as applicants were able to fulfil the set criteria. Those unable to do so, such as not being able to work for whatever reason, had their status revoked.
Excluding a few rare cases, THPN was not individuals reaching Malta in and after 2008, even if they could not be returned through no fault of their own and had made significant integration efforts.
This is a problem because rejected asylum seekers have very limited rights: it is very difficult for them to obtain legal employment, their access to medical care is not guaranteed and it is often impossible for them to open a bank account or to obtain documentation such as a driving licence.
Possibly worst of all, rejected asylum seekers must live with the constant threat of deportation, with the insecurity of knowing that, no matter how hard they work to build a life for themselves here, one day they might find themselves in detention awaiting a flight home.
Although far from perfect the THPN system was beneficial in many respects, as it gave people a measure of stability.
This said, the system has a number of significant shortcomings. For a start, it is not regulated by law, but by policy, which means that beneficiaries do not enjoy legal rights but mere concessions. More, the assessment criteria for the granting of THPN, which focus on integration efforts and employment status are unclear, leaving a broad margin of discretion in the hands of the decision-maker. The conditions for cessation, non-renewal or withdrawal of THPN are also unclear. Furthermore, individuals denied THPN (new applications or renewals) do not have the right to appeal from this negative decision.
Families are not automatically granted THPN as a whole unit. We encounter people whose children have THPN but the father and/or mother and/or siblings do not. We strongly feel that this goes contrary to the best interests of the child, since the parent not benefitting from THP/THPN status remains in a precarious situation, at risk of being returned or of not being able to enjoy basic rights.
In November 2016 beneficiaries of THPN applying for a renewal of their status were informed that the procedure was being reviewed. Their THPN certificates were withdrawn by the Office of the Refugee Commissioner pending the outcome of this review.
Some 1000 men, women and children were directly impacted by this decision, which plunged them into a state of precariousness and insecurity. No timelines were provided as to when they could expect information or decisions on their statuses.
The people directly impacted by this review have all lived in Malta for several years – some for as long as 18 years. Most are from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, and among them are a number of families, including many with children born here in Malta.
As a result of the withdrawal of their documents all have faced problems in their daily lives, including difficulties obtaining medication, inability to cash cheques, and problems maintaining bank accounts. Concern has also been expressed by Maltese employers, about how this decision will impact their ability to retain these employees. All of these issues have a cumulative effect on people’s lives, resulting in a downward spiral of poverty and insecurity.
Following pressure from several sectors, the Ministry agreed to continue renewing the THPN of status-holders until 31st October 2017. The revised decision stated that THPN would be terminated on this date and all current holders of THPN would revert to the legal status of failed-asylum-seekers, unless they were able to apply for a Single Permit – this being the document granted to other third-country nationals who come to Malta to work.
In February 2017, the Minister announced that the rights of THPN holders would not be adversely affected by the review and that new administrative measures would be announced in the following days.
On 13th October 2017, the Refugee Commissioner announced that “Temporary Humanitarian Protection New, (THPN) will not be terminated on the 31st of October 2017, but for the time being will continue to be issued by the Office of the Refugee Commissioner. There are currently inter-ministerial talks ongoing for the way forward but keeping the same rights, as a minimum. THPN which will still be valid for one year and will be renewed to beneficiaries who meet the current eligibility criteria and present the necessary documentation as per current procedure. Until inter-ministerial talks are finalized, THPN shall continue to be renewed on a yearly basis as long as the applicant presents the necessary documentation.”
The situation of rejected asylum seekers remains unchanged.