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Inquiry on deported Eritreans commences

George Cini

The Malta Commissioner for Refugees testified yesterday that during the period September/October 2002, when 220 Eritreans were repatriated, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees was calling on all Eritreans who had been granted refugee status to return to their homeland, because Eritrea was then considered safe.

Charles Buttigieg, who is the UNHCR representative in Malta, said that the 220 deported Eritreans had consistently refused to apply for refugee status but demanded that the government make arrangements for them to be sent to a European country.

The Eritreans had been informed that this was not possible. That particular group of Eritreans had been brought in to Malta after they found themselves in difficulty while crossing over in an open boat from North Africa to Italy.

They had been assisted and escorted by a ship sailing close by.

Mr Buttigieg was giving evidence at the law courts in Valletta in the first sitting by Magistrate Abigail Lofaro who is presiding over an inquiry ordered by Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg after the publication of a report by Amnesty International which contained torture claims.

The 47-page report entitled "Eritrea: You have no right to ask", claims that the 220 Eritreans deported from Malta in September and October 2002 were among those who faced torture and punishment upon their return.

Dr Borg has insisted that at the time of the repatriation, Eritrea was a safe place. However, the Peace Lab at Hal Far, a non-government agency, basing their claim on information by bishops in Eritrea, had emphasised that that country was not safe at all.

Continuing, Mr Buttigieg explained to the court that all illegal immigrants are asked to complete a questionnaire so that the Commissioner for Refugees would be able to get to know personal details about them including their knowledge of languages, where they came from and what documents they possess.

Immigration police and soldiers who assist them inform illegal immigrants that it would benefit them to apply for refugee status.

In the case of illegal immigrants whose country of origin is in turmoil, the Commissioner calls on the government to grant them humanitarian status for a specific period.

Mr Buttigieg noted that through his office's contacts with UNHCR and through international news agencies such as Associated Press, it was clear that Eritreans should no longer have fears of returning home up till the end of 2002.

The UNHCR in fact announced that it would be withdrawing the refugee status granted to Eritreans dispersed in a number of countries so that they would return to their home country, Mr Buttigieg said.

On September 4, 2002, the Eritreans detained at Ta' Kandja went on a hunger strike but after holding a meeting with Mr Buttigieg, which lasted over three hours, nothing was concluded.

Other NGOs including the Emigrants' Commission and the Jesuit Refugee Services had implored the Eritreans to apply for refugee status but they refused.

Failing to apply for refugee status meant that they were no longer seeking international assistance in Malta, Mr Buttigieg added.

It was only last January that the UNHCR recommended to the government not to resort to forced deportation of Eritreans. On receiving this information, Mr Buttigieg said he had immediately suggested to the government that it should grant humanitarian status for one year to the Eritreans still in Malta.

There are currently about 100 Eritreans in Malta.

The next witness, Mgr Philip Calleja, director of the Emgirants' Commission, practically confirmed all that had been stated by Mr Buttigieg.

Mgr Calleja recounted how the Eritreans wanted their case to be heard by the UNHCR in Rome but the office in Rome refused this request saying they would not overrule the Malta representative.

The court will continue to hear other witnesses tomorrow. Times of Malta, Sunday, May 30, 2004



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