venerdì 6 maggio 2011

Malta: Asylum seekers fear for health of women, children inside Hal Far hangar


Rows of tents occupy the hangar at Hal Far open centre for refugees
The old airplane hangar at Hal Far is serving as an open centre for asylum seekers, but residents say it's dangerous, as squalid conditions make it especially threatening for children as young as four months old.

Text, photography by Martina Said

The first thing to welcome visitors is undoubtedly the pungent smell of the domestic sewage, with dirty pools of water gathered in gutters around the hangar. This, combined with dirty floors and the absence of mattresses, is of serious concern to 35-year-old Ethiopian Dawit Metamu, speaking on behalf of the residents inside the Hal Far hangar - a makeshift open centre for asylum seekers.

Dawit arrived in Malta from Libya on 29 March, where he was subsequently detained and finally placed at the Hal Far open centre, three days ago, along with a group of families which have been removed from detention.

“All the children here are under four years old, the youngest one four months old and another six months. In the night it is cold here, there is garbage close to our tents, a smell of sewage, dirty toilets and rats,” he claimed.

Dawit says children sit and frolic on the dirty floor, as young children do, then put their hands in their mouths and get sick. “The floor is not just covered in dust but also with gasoline which is flammable and very dangerous.”

To show just how grimy the floor is, a mother puts her young child on the floor and lets her muck around, lifting her up again to show her small blue jeans turned grey with dirt.

Helen Weldemicael, 23, mother to a six-month old child, explains how the living conditions at the hangar are  especially hazardous to her following the birth of her child in Libya by Caesarean-section. She has a prescription for medicine from the Floriana Health Centre, but nobody at the hangar has told her anything about how to go about obtaining the medication she needs.

One of the greatest complaints of residents at the hangar is the lack of adequate bedding, with blankets and sheets, but no mattresses, so where they sleep resembles more of a stretcher. Each tent can house a maximum of four persons, but only two beds are available in each tent, so children must share a bed with their parents.

The hangar is also noticeably dark, with only two working ceiling bulbs to light up a considerably large building. “It is very dark inside. Each tent has its own light bulb but only works for two hours, and then has to be charged. All there is in our tent is what we have - no pots, pans, cookers or anything else we need. The kitchen is also very dirty and has to be shared by around 400 people,” Dawit said.

After taking a look at the communal toilets and shower room, which are cut off from the hangar, it is easy to understand why residents complain. Clogged and overflowing sinks and slippery dirty floors must be used by men, women and children alike.

Dawit said: “There are no washing basins where children could be washed, they must use the showers. This is bad for them because the water temperature of the showers cannot be controlled, and they are also dirty.”

The asylum seekers at the hangar, who had been working in Libya but are originally from Ethiopia and Eritrea, say they are grateful to the Maltese for rescuing them and taking care of them on their arrival. “We understand that the Maltese government needs help, the EU has to help, but we never expected to be living like this,” Dawit says.

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