Detainees at Hal Safi. Photo of the conditions taken by a migrant on his mobile phone.

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Like Flour



The Covid-19 pandemic made way for a surge in instances of inhumane treatment towards migrants who crossed the Mediterranean Sea by boat from Libya to Europe. Outside Maltese territorial waters alone, migrants were repeatedly kept stranded, or returned to war torn Libya in a breach of EU human rights laws.

Under the pretext of public health, Malta chartered four private vessels on which hundreds of asylum-seekers were illegally detained for over 1 month, in appalling conditions and with no access to assistance. When let to disembark, the migrants faced yet another situation of prolonged uncertainty and questionable treatment justified by preventing the spread of a contagious virus: months on end in detention centres shrouded in secrecy.

Sources spoke of a climate of hostility, regular suicide attempts, harassment, and undignified conditions made increasingly challenging by the pandemic.

In collaboration with local human rights NGO Aditus foundation, through photography and text, Like Flour explores life in the detention centres during the pandemic through testimonies of those who have experienced it, and explore how the pandemic is contributing to such conditions within a pre-existing facility.

The project helps bring to light one of the social consequences of Covid19; how a vulnerable group is subjected to living in such desperate conditions.


The project was supported by the National Geographic COVID-19 Emergency Fund. 


Published on Politico Europe.

*Kojo and his brother would hold each other's hands every night for ten months, and pray together. They would say:

"God help me. God encourage me. God protect every one of us in this camp. God help every one of us we can be be free one day."

*Kojo, from Ghana holds up a hazmat suit that he occasionally used to wear to work in the detention centre.

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Since *Kojo knew a few languages, he was one of the detainees asked to work in the centre.

“Every day we would wake up at 7 o'clock in the morning and worked till more than 10pm at night... My whole life in that detention centre was that work that I was doing.

When they rescued people from the sea, the officers were afraid because of the coronavirus, they didn't want to approach them so we had to go. Their mind wouldn’t be ok. I would calm them down, some of them would like me, some of them would also hate me because they thought I was helping the officers every day. I would tell them “don’t give up, everyone passes through a bad time, one day you will come out of that." 

Kojo said he never got paid for his work, even though he would work all day every day for over 9 months.

The only cloth covid19 facemask Kojo was given in detention while there for ten months. Many detainees were given one facemask to use throughout the duration of their detainment.

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The only clothing that was given to detainees while Kojo was there, throughout all seasons. When the detainees had no option but to wash the tracksuit, they would wait around in the room wearing sheets, Kojo said.

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A person sleeps on a bed outdoors. Photo of the conditions at Hal Safi taken by a migrant on his mobile phone. 

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“Sometimes you’d wake up in the morning seeing soldiers training and shooting guns like we were in Libya… The people in there were people who have seen war, and they can hear gunshots in the background in the morning. I don’t feel threatened by guns but hearing gunshots every morning is not good… When I was there, I knew that everything has a beginning and has an end, and that I was hoping for. I was hoping that one day, all this nonsense would come to an end.” - *Akin 

Kouame's Maltese-English dictionary. He was given the dictionary by a guard he befriended at the detention centre, to be able to look up the names he was being called by other guards, and report them to the director. One of the words he reported was the word 'Xadin', meaning 'monkey'.

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*Kouame was given a Bible by one of the guards. He leaned on this bible to get him through the ten-plus months of detention. p.p1

“In Italy, there is a place in the detention centre where you can go to pray. Like that we were at least motivated to stop thinking because when I was in that church, I would think of nothing.When sometimes I thought of harming myself or doing something to myself, I would tell myself to go there and those ideas do not come to me."

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*Kouame said that he would witness suicide attempts every day throughout his ten months in detention. "People are in detention and they don’t go out... they would take a rope around a fan to hang themselves...

Every day you’d be seeing these kinds of things...

When we went out to share food in the morning, as soon as we left, there was one guy who took the clothes he was wearing, divided them into pieces and tied them like a rope. That same guy I mentioned earlier, we saw him hanging himself in the bathroom from the window and we rushed in there to try and stop him."

People lying in their beds. Photo of the conditions at Hal Safi taken by a migrant on his mobile phone.

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*Farish.

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“We would play football in the yard, and sometimes the ball would get stuck, and the security would use bad language to get it down. For many weeks they wouldn’t give us the ball, and for a while we had nothing to do, we’d just sit down or sleep. Then we’d get the ball depending to the guards’ moods, so how we were treated was dependant on that mood. We were depressed in that situation, because there was nothing to do during the day”. - Farish from Bangladesh.

A detainees list of contacts that they would keep on them at all times since mobile phones were confiscated.

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*Kamrul shows a picture of his daughter.

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*Kamrul, from Bangladesh, who was in detention for about 14 months, shows a photo of his daughter, who, for a period of time, thought he was dead.

“The TV and phones were removed for weeks on end because of chance of contamination, so we couldn't call our family for about two and a half months. We were worried for our family and our family was worried for us – mentally, it was a very bad situation. We did not understand the virus, we weren't told much about it so did not understand what was happening, so for us it was not a justification, it was our right to be able to speak to our families.”

Graffiti on the wall. Photo of the conditions at Hal Safi taken by a migrant on his mobile phone.

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*Moussa from Senegal (left) stands with his friends in a field located close to the detention centres.

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*Moussa spent over two months in detention, which to him “felt like two years”. During this time, it was the friends he made there that helped him get through it. On a day-to-day basis they would care for each other, with small actions such as bringing food for each other if one would have been asleep at the time.

One thing Moussa could not stand in detention was that if he ever had to leave for an appointment (with an NGO representative, for example), he would be handcuffed. “It changed me, because I didn’t do any crimes, and they handcuffed me with people looking at me in the street – it made me feel ashamed,” he said.

He couldn’t sleep the night before he was let out of detention. “I was in my bed and my friend told me to wake up, because today is freedom”.

Hal Safi detention centre. 

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