Unaccompanied Foreign Minors: Turning 18 in Malta

Pubblichiamo la storia di Rachid, minore straniero solo che ha vissuto detenuto nei CIE di Malta.
Rachjd is twenty. He arrived in Malta at fifteen. In 2007, when he escaped from the war that plagued his home country Somalia, Rachjd was still living with his parents and three brothers. A boy like any other, with a regular family life, born into a nation torn by violence.

Rachjd’s family: mother, father and brothers – are still there in Mogadishu, but he left them for a journey that brought him far away. “I’ve crossed Sudan on foot along with thirty other people, until we reached the Libyan coast,” he says. “We had to move at night and it was very dangerous. I was scared”.
From the Libyan shore he stepped onto the small boat that he had to share with twenty-eight others. “Nobody died, there were other young people on board, but older than me,” Rachjd recounts.
Crossing the Mediterranean took roughly a week; Rachjd doesn’t remember how many days he spent in the cramped vessel. When they arrived in Malta, the police brought them into custody.
And so began the Maltese story of Rachjd, who entered the European island as an unaccompanied minor or “UM”.
After landing on Malta, Rachjd was taken to the detention centre. All immigrants, including minors, are brought here and questioned in the absence of parents or legal guardians. According to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, there are currently 56 boys who claim to be UMs. The age verification procedures can take from a few days to several months, and are carried out by a team of social workers.
“I was confused, tired from the trip,” Rachjd says, “You can’t be ready for this no matter your age. I stayed there for several days, two weeks, maybe less. I’ve forgotten so many things; I don’t like talking about it. Nobody explained my rights, I learned slowly, talking with social workers and other immigrants.”
If their age is not disputed, the youths are released and moved to residential homes for children and young people and a legal guardian is assigned. Rachjd was transferred to a centre for boys. The responsibility of reception, placement, asylum and welfare for unaccompanied foreign minors lies with the Ministry for Justice and Home Affairs and the Ministry for Social Policy.
All children up to the age of sixteen, including unaccompanied minors, are obliged to attend school. Rachjd went to school for a while, but complains that a lack of support made learning impossible. “Nobody helped me, it was useless,” he says, adding that he feels like he has failed his parents, who worked hard to earn the money needed for his trip, about 1,200 dollars. “When I call my parents on the phone I can’t tell them the truth. I don’t tell them that how hard the life is here.”
Several times Rachjd repeats his sense that he hasn’t received any assistance in Malta. It is the responsibility of the Commissioner for Children in Malta to ensure that the island state meets the obligations as determined by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention guarantees children seeking asylum in a foreign country the same rights of the children born in that country.
After spending nearly three years in the centre for children, Rachjd turned eighteen. “My life didn’t change”, he says. “The only difference is that I feel freer, because I’m not controlled anymore, but they didn’t take care of me before either, so nothing has changed”.
When the minors reach their eighteenth year they must leave the residential home, and are encouraged to move into rented accommodation. This, however, almost never happens. “Sometimes I work and the other days I’m here. When I was a minor, it was the same. Last year, for a long period, I’ve worked with a construction company. Now I’ve no money and I have to live here, in the Open Centre,” Rachjd says.
Boys who turn eighteen are forced to move to the Open Centres where many adult migrants live, after being released from detention. The centres are overcrowded and individual care as well as facilities are much more basic than in the residential homes.
Turning eighteen also brings new legal status. The authorities are obliged to take care of unaccompanied minors; adults are a different story entirely.
If an asylum seeker cannot fulfil the requirements for refugee status, the Refugee Commissioner may recommend the authorities grant a “subsidiary protection”. This allows a person to stay in Malta with freedom of movement and personal documents, granting them a renewable residence permit for one year as well as employment and welfare benefits.
But those who don’t obtain the subsidiary protection must leave Malta. Many will go into hiding and again take to travelling illegally, as they are still undocumented immigrants. But according to the Dublin Convention, any other EU country can send them back to the member state where they first arrived and, on arrival, had their fingerprints taken.
Rachjd obtained the subsidiary protection, but he doesn’t feel lucky. As most, he considered Malta a country of transit and not a final destination. “I came to Europe looking for better conditions,” he says.
When asked about his idea of better living conditions he can’t answer. Perhaps a country without war, where the opportunities to study are greater?
“Yes”, he agrees uncertainly, saying he still has hope even laws keep him in Malta where opportunities for migrants are small. “I couldn’t stay in Somalia and now I’m forced to stay here. I’d rather go to Norway or Sweden, but they took my fingerprints in Malta and now I must stay here.”
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