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How are third-country nationals affected by the response to COVID-19 in Malta?

The first case of the COVID-19 virus was confirmed in Malta on 7 March 2020. The government and civil society organisations have been working to ensure that migrants in Malta have the information they need about precautions and new rules. However, applications for residence permits have been impacted by the pandemic, and the government has announced that residence permits would be rescinded from third-country nationals found to break quarantine rules.

Outreach to migrants

The Migrant Health Liaison Office, part of the Primary Healthcare department of the Ministry for Health, has disseminated materials about the virus to key stakeholders working with migrants, asking for them to be shared with clients on social media and in open centres. These materials are available in English, French, Arabic, Somali, Tigrinya, Urdu and Bengali.

UNHCR Malta has also released information on COVID-19 for refugees and asylum-seekers in Malta on their website in English, Arabic, French, Somali, Bangla and Tigrinya using information and infographics from the World Health Organization.

The government launched the Covid-19 Malta website which provides information in both Maltese and English, with the latest updates and FAQs. The health authorities release a briefing video daily, reporting on any new cases of the virus and new measures to be taken. The videos are transmitted live through social media platforms and by the main news outlets, which translate the key points into English.

Quarantine rules

A mandatory quarantine period of 14 days is currently in place for anyone arriving from outside the country. The Prime Minister announced that spot checks would be made by the police and anyone failing to observe quarantine orders will be subject to a €1,000 fine (later increased to €3,000) every time conditions are breached. In the same press release, the Prime Minister announced that the measures would include rescinding work permits for third-country nationals who beak quarantine rules, and even threatened deportation.

This rhetoric was later further stepped up with Economy Minister Silvio Schembri’s statement that any foreigners who lost their jobs would be deported: ‘Charity begins at home. Our primary focus are Maltese and Gozitan workers. The moment foreign workers lose their job they will have to go back to their country’. In a social media post, the Junior Minister responsible for Equality, Rosianne Cutajar, urged respect and empathy to all who have been contributing to a richer and more diverse Malta.

The Economy Minister later apologised for his comments, stating that no work permits would be terminated. 20 NGOs in Malta also released a statement to the media, condemning the language used by the Minister, stating, ‘When the nation is facing such challenging times, words of support and encouragement are far more productive than careless talk of unemployment and deportations’.

Impact on residence permit applications

A further development was the sudden refusal to see clients by Identity Malta, the entity that processes residence permits and visa applications. It was reported on 11th March that the offices remained closed with ‘no official reason’, but no one had been alerted to the measure, with some people having queued outside since 5:00 a.m. On 16th March, Identity Malta published a note on Facebook to clarify what different groups should do regarding residence and work permits, namely, to use the online application platform where possible. They also announced that new decisions on applications submitted by those outside Maltese territory will not be accepted until further notice.