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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 January, 2005, 13:30 GMT
UN blasts Maltese asylum policy
Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Geneva

View of La Valetta
Most asylum seekers arrive in Malta by sea from North Africa
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has sharply criticised Malta for its treatment of asylum seekers.

The agency is concerned about the apparent use of excessive force by Maltese soldiers during a peaceful demonstration by asylum seekers.

Malta has been under criticism for its policy on asylum seekers, which the UN says is by far the strictest in Europe.

Six asylum seekers were taken to hospital after a sit-down protest was broken up by soldiers last week.

Photographs published in local newspapers clearly show soldiers kicking the asylum seekers and hitting them with batons, while others held them to the ground.

Tent camps

The UN says it welcomes Malta's decision to hold an inquiry into the incident, but is repeating its call for the Maltese government to re-examine its entire policy towards asylum seekers.

Malta currently keeps those seeking asylum in detention for 18 months. UN guidelines state clearly that asylum seekers should not be detained except in very specific circumstances, and children should not be detained at all.

In addition, the refugee agency says, the conditions in the detention camps are completely unacceptable.

Asylum seekers live in tents with little protection from the winter cold. There is no separation of non-related men, women and children - a standard practise to safeguard against sexual abuse - and in many detention centres the bathrooms are mixed with no doors on toilets or showers.

The refugee agency sent Malta a detailed list of shortcomings in the camps last June, but has so far received no official response.

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