GENEVA (16 May 2019) - The Committee on the Rights of the Child today concluded its consideration of the third to sixth periodic report of Malta on measures taken to implement the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Christopher Grima, Permanent Representative of Malta to United Nations Office at Geneva, reiterated the importance his country attached to the protection and promotion of human rights and its unwavering commitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Introducing the report, Marisa Scerri, Director-General for Social Policy in the Ministry for the Family, Children’s rights and Social Solidarity of Malta said that the Maltese children were growing up in a society characterised by rapid change and that the Government recognized that emerging socio-demographic realities demanded a range of innovative approaches that safeguarded and promoted the rights and best interest of all children irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds. In addition to the National Children’s Policy, Malta had in place a range of policies and strategies that underpinned the efforts in promoting children’s prospects, including on poverty reduction and social inclusion, positive parenting, youth, digitalization, and disability. The ground-breaking Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act had introduced the right to gender identity, bodily integrity, and physical autonomy for adults and minors alike, as well as the protection of a minor against unwanted or unnecessary surgical interventions or medical treatment of their sexual characteristics. A range of measures and benefits to ensure adequate and sustainable income for parents and primary caregivers had been introduced, and actions taken to address social determinants of health childhood obesity, and tobacco and alcohol consumption. A number of legal safeguards were in place to secure the well-being of children, particularly unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children and children in contact with the criminal justice system.
In the ensuing dialogue, Committee Experts welcomed the reform of the criminal code which had raised the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years and prohibited corporal punishment, and the efforts to amend the anti-discrimination framework to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. On the definition of the child, the Committee noted with concern that it was possible for a child aged 16 to enter into a legal marriage or a civil union with parental consent and that the juvenile justice system only addressed children under the age of 16 while older children in the criminal justice system were treated as adults. A serious concern was the trend in Malta to criminalize search and rescue operations for migrants and refugees, including children, in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the growing incidence of racial discrimination and hate speech, particularly against migrants and foreigners. The delegation was asked about the safeguards and the application of the best interest of the child in the age determination procedure for asylum-seeking children, efforts to ensure that unaccompanied migrant children received guardians and temporary humanitarian protection orders in a speedy manner, and to integrate migrant and refugee children into mainstream education as soon as possible. The Experts urged Malta to reconsider its total prohibition of abortion and legalize the procedure for cases of rape and incest and inquired about adolescents’ access to contraception and sexual and reproductive health education is schools.
In her concluding remarks, Olga Khazova, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Malta, said that the concluding observations would address the main issues of concern, including birth registrations, juvenile justice, migrant and refugee children, and asylum-seeking children.
Ms. Scerri, in her concluding remarks, said that the enriching discussion with the Committee was an opportunity to take stock of the progress achieved and identify the challenges that remained, and said that Malta was awaiting the concluding observations with great interest.
In his closing remarks, Luis Ernesto Pedernera Reyna, Committee Chairperson, said that the vast number of questions allowed the Committee to better understand the situation in the country and would enable it to formulate the best recommendations possible for Malta and its children.
The delegation of Malta consisted of representatives of the Ministry for the Family, Children’s Rights and Social Solidarity; Ministry for Justice, Culture and Local Government; Ministry for Home Affairs and National Security; Ministry for Health; Ministry for Education and Employment; and the Permanent Mission of Malta to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
All the documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage. The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings will be available via the following link: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/.
The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. today, 16 May, to review the combined fourth and fifth periodic report of Singapore (CRC/C/SGP/4-5).
The Committee has before it the combined third to sixth periodic report of Malta (CRC/C/MLT/3-6) and its reply to the list of issues (CRC/C/MLT/Q/3-6/Add.1)
Presentation of the Report
CHRISTOPHER GRIMA, Permanent Representative of Malta to United Nations Office at Geneva, reiterated the importance his country attached to the protection and promotion of human rights and its support to the United Nations treaty bodies which were at the heart of the human rights framework. The Government’s commitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child was unwavering and Malta would actively follow up on the Committee’s recommendations.
MARISA SCERRI, Director-General for Social Policy in the Ministry for the Family, Children’s rights and Social Solidarity of Malta, in the introduction of the report, said that the Maltese children were growing up in a society characterised by rapid change, as seen in diverse family structures, evolving demographic realities, lifestyle changes, and technological advances. Such transitions presented a number of opportunities and challenges across the life-course including childhood, said Ms. Scerri adding that Malta recognized that emerging socio-demographic realities demanded a range of innovative approaches that safeguarded and promoted the rights and best interest of all children irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds. The Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act had introduced the right to gender identity, bodily integrity, and physical autonomy for adults and minors alike, as well as the protection of a minor against unwanted or unnecessary surgical interventions or medical treatment of their sexual characteristics. The National Children’s Policy was in place and children featured prominently in Malta’s National Reform Programme and in the National Strategic Policy for Poverty Reduction and Social Inclusion 2014-2024. The National Strategic Policy for Positive Parenting 2016-2024, along with policies and strategies health, education, youth, digitalization, crime, and disability underpinned Malta’s efforts in promoting children’s prospects. While the State assumed responsibility for the promotion of children’s well-being, Malta also acknowledged the important role and contribution of other entities: Church, voluntary organizations, and other autonomous bodies such as the Office of the Commissioner for Children and the Malta Foundation for the Wellbeing of the Society.
Turning to the recent initiatives, the Director-General said that Malta had introduced a range of measures and benefits to ensure adequate and sustainable income for parent and primary caregivers. Parents benefitted from family-related allowances such as Children’s Allowance, which was both universal and means-tested, and additional assistance was provided to carers of disadvantaged children, including the child in care benefit, disabled child allowance, and the adoption grant. Parental leave and adoption leave had been designed to promote the reconciliation between family and working life and the Social Care Standards Authority had been set up to promote, enhance, and monitor standards in service provision in the best interest of the child. A child participation assessment tool was being developed in collaboration with the Council of Europe, which would facilitate and promote the participation of children in the development and implementation of policies. Malta offered free and universal health care coverage at all levels and provided scheduled medications free of charge to all eligible persons, including children.
Measures had been taken to optimize child development services in collaboration with education department; to address social determinants of health, in particular, to combat intergenerational transmission of poverty and social exclusion; and to address childhood obesity, and tobacco and alcohol consumption. The national vaccination strategy and national mental health strategy were being finalized. The Framework for the Education Strategy 2014-2024 aligned all sectoral education strategies and policies and had four broad but measurable targets in line with European and world benchmarks. A number of legal safeguards were in place to secure the wellbeing of children, particularly unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children, children in contact with the criminal justice system both as victims and as perpetrators of crimes, and victims of human trafficking. The Crime Prevention Strategy addressed a range of issues including juvenile justice, policing for crime prevention, recidivism, and victim support. Detention and asylum legislation had been reviewed and the Strategy for the Reception on Asylum Seekers and Irregular Migrants was in place, said Ms. Scerri and stressed that vulnerable persons including children were not subject to migration detention.
Questions by the Committee Experts
GEHAD MADI, Coordinator of the Committee’s Task Force on Malta, welcomed the reform of the criminal code which had raised the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years and prohibited corporal punishment, as well as the adoption of institutional and policy measures related to children’s rights.
Turning to Malta’s legislative and policy framework, the Co-Rapporteur acknowledged that the country was embarking on an exercise to fully incorporate the Convention by transposing it to national legislation, and asked the delegation to outline the steps taken so far to enact a comprehensive child rights acts that fully reflected the principles of the Convention and its Optional Protocols.
The Office of the Commission for Children was not an independent body as it was under the Ministry of Justice and its budget was drawn from the budget of that Ministry. What was being done to guarantee the full independence of this body? Would Malta establish a national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles? The delegation was asked to explain how Malta ensured the availability of resources necessary for the effective implementation of the National Children’s Policy.
Mr. Madi recalled that in its previous concluding observations, the Committee had raised the question of the protection of children from exploitation in the tourism industry and asked the delegation what Malta had done to implement those recommendations and ensure that business sector upheld and protected the rights of the child. The Committee was seriously concerned about the trend to criminalize search and rescue operations for migrants and refugees, including children, said Mr. Madi and asked the delegation to explain how Malta was ensuring the freedom of operation for civil society organizations and that their rescue operations were not criminalized?
OLGA KHAZOVA, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Malta, turned to the definition of the child and noted that it was still possible for a child aged 16 to enter into a legal marriage or civil union, with parental consent. Would those exceptions be eliminated and age of marriage at 18 universally guaranteed? She commended Malta for considering the principle of the best interest of the child as the cornerstone of the Child Protection (Alternative Act) 2017 and asked whether there were guidelines for judges for the implementation of this principle and its inclusion in judgements. On birth registration, the amendments to the Maltese Civil Code allowed, for humanitarian reason, the registration of children born at sea on board of unregistered vessels, however, the Committee was concern about the information of the authorities to register the birth of children born on board of registered vessels, although Malta was the first harbour of disembarkation.
Turning to the preservation of identity, the Co-Rapporteur noted that Malta allowed children born through assisted reproduction to access the information about their origins and asked whether psychological support and consultations were available to support the children and their families in this matter. Since surrogacy was criminalized in Malta, what was the fate and legal status of a child born to Maltese parents through international surrogacy?
VELINA TODOROVA, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Malta, welcomed the efforts to amend the anti-discrimination framework in order to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity but raised a concern about the growing incidence of racial discrimination and hate speech, particularly against migrants and foreigners in the Maltese society. Further, she asked whether there were any regulations or tools to assist professionals in hearing and communicating with children in difficult situations, and whether hearing those children was a legal obligation.
The Co-Rapporteur welcomed the ban on corporal punishment and raised concern that it continued to be used against children. Could the delegation outline the plans to eliminate corporal punishment without resorting to criminal justice, for example through awareness and education of teachers and parents on the ban?
The adoption of the Minor Protection (Alternative Care) Act was still pending, she noted and asked the delegation why its name had been changed from children protection to minor protection and whether the focus of the act was on the protection of children or alternative care. How did the Act address the question of violence against children and abuse of children, including by clergy?
Replies by the Delegation
The National Children’s Policy, launched in November 2017, was based on extensive consultation with the children of Malta. The authorities had held interviews with children of all ages in state schools, Church schools, and in independent schools. Young children had expressed themselves through pictures and drawings, while older ones received simple questionnaires that they respond to in school, without taking them home, which guaranteed that the views contained therein were really the children’s and not influenced by their parents. Like any other policy in Malta, this policy was being implemented by relevant ministries, which reported and coordinated their actions through the inter-ministerial committees, while the Office of the Commissioner for Children was a watchdog for the implementation of the Children’s Policy.
The Child Protection (Alternative Care) Act, now named Minors Protection (Alternative Care) Act was in the parliamentary procedure. Explaining the change in name from child to the minor, the delegation said that the Maltese law defined as a “minor” any human being under the 18 years of age in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It was felt that the word “child” was attributed to the parent, while “minor” was more inclusive and referred to all human beings under the age of 18 including unaccompanied minors.
Turning to the allocation of resources for children, the delegation said that in 2017, Malta had allocated 13.9 per cent of the public expenditure to education, 1.4 per cent to defence, 15.1 per cent to health, and 31.7 per cent to social protection. While the resources allocated to education went directly to children, it was important to note that most of the social protection benefits and allocations were accorded to families with children. As a Member State of the European Union, Malta also benefitted from the European funding structures for its initiatives for children. One of the projects co-financed with the European Union referred to the installation of lifts for children with and the opening of a centre for vulnerable children where they could get advice on a range of issues. Furthermore, there were co-financed projects which supported the entry into labour markets of children who completed secondary school.
In January 2019, Malta had embarked on the process of transposing the Convention into its national law. The Office of the Commissioner for Children was in the process of conducting a legal and policy analysis to ascertain the degree of alignment with the Convention, and which should be completed by the end of 2019.
Malta acknowledged the right of the child to participate and be heard as prescribed by the Convention and was actively consulting with children, for example in the preparation of the National Children’s Policy. The Office of the Commissioner for Children would be working with children to produce communication and information materials to promote the Convention. Each school, including public, private or Church schools, had to have a school council in which student, teachers, and parents took part. In addition, schools also had student councils composed only of students where they could voice their concerns and opinions, while all educational policies were discussed with children through focus groups, school classes, and other forms of consultation.
If an application by an unaccompanied minor for international protection was rejected, the Office of the Refugee Commissioner could issue a temporary permit on humanitarian which would allow the child to stay in the country unit the age of majority.
The principle of the best interest of the child was well known in Malta and was incorporated in a number of laws. The principle was being already implemented, for example in a case of divorce, the Civil Code authorized the judge to appoint a child’s advocate. Another example could be found in the asylum procedures which prohibited the detention of minors and provided for age assessment procedure in the best interest of the child, which would be appealed to a quasi-judicial board. It was up to the judge to decide whether it was necessary for the child to be heard and there were different ways in which the child could be heard, based on the children and her of his level of maturity. A child could be heard in chambers, in the courtroom, or by a videoconference.
The training was provided to persons dealing with children in the judicial system. Lawyers and prosecutors also participated in European conferences, while the European Judicial Training Network provided training to judges on various issues. The delegation stressed that Malta was in the process of transporting the European Union directive 206/100 which referred to the procedural safeguards for children who were suspect or accused in criminal proceedings.
The annual Trafficking in Persons Report issued by the United States Department of State often contained a statement on sex tourism in Malta, said the delegation in response to the questions raised on the exploitation of children in the tourist industry. However, Malta always challenged the factual grounding of this statement as it was never based on official statistics.
Questions by the Committee Experts
In the next round of questions, OLGA KHAZOVA, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Malta, asked the delegation to explain the procedures governing the removal of the child from family environment, in particular when the child was in danger and at risk of abuse or violence. According to the regulations, a parent could place the child in the care of another person for “valid reasons” – what were those reasons and did the parent retain his or her parental rights? Malta did not put children in institutional care, Ms. Khazova remarked with satisfaction, and asked the delegation to explain how the residential homes run by the Church were monitored and whether the children therein residing could keep in touch with their families and how they could file a complaint.
Turning to health issues and health care, the Co-Rapporteur asked if free and universal health care was extended to migrant and refugee children including undocumented and unaccompanied ones, the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the access of children to mental health specialists including in schools. Abortion was illegal, Ms. Khazova noted and asked whether Malta would legalize the termination of pregnancy arising from rape or incest. What strategy was in place to prevent unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, including through granting access to contraceptives and ensuring sexual and reproductive health education in schools?
VELINA TODOROVA, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Malta, addressed the situation of children with disabilities and asked the delegation about early detection of disabilities and the support to families to prevent institutionalization of children with disabilities, in particular, those with intellectual and psychological disabilities. Could the delegation share their successes and challenges of inclusive education?
Why did the juvenile justice system only address children under the age of 16 while older children were treated as adults by the criminal justice system and what was being done to reduce the excessive duration of pre-trial detention of minors?
GEHAD MADI, Coordinator of the Committee’s Task Force on Malta, raised a concern about the high number of children who discontinued their education at the end of compulsory schooling at the age of 16. What was being done to address bullying and cyberbullying in schools and integrate migrant and refugee children into mainstream education as soon as possible? The Coordinator referred to the incident in March 2019 in which the commercial vessel Elhiblu 1 had rescued hundreds of migrants in the international waters in the Mediterranean Sea, and which had been allegedly hijacked by the migrants to prevent it from heading to Libya. Upon its arrival to Malta, a number of migrants had been arrested, including three teenagers whose charges were very severe and amounted to terrorism. although two of the three were minors, they were held in high-security prison together with adults. Furthermore, a number of migrants who had arrived on the ship, including children, had clear signs of torture.
BRAGI GUDBRANDSSON, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Malta, asked the delegation about the process of age determination for migrant children, who was responsible, and whether the decision could be appealed. Since the procedure was not a science, what safeguards were in place to protect the best interest of the child? What plans were there to improve the conditions in reception centres and to ensure that unaccompanied migrant children received guardians and temporary humanitarian protection orders in a speedy manner?
Replies by the Delegation
In response to the questions raised on children in care and the removal of the child from family environment, the delegation explained that the Ministry for the Family, Children’s Rights and Social Solidarity stepped in whenever a child was deemed to be in need of care or protection, including when she or he was not receiving the care that a reasonable parent or guardian would provide. During the removal procedure, the child was placed in an alternative care while hearings by the advisory board evaluated what was in the best interest of the child and advised the Minister who made the decision based on those recommendations. The advisory boards were comprised of five or six people, including mothers, psychologists, and officials from the Social Security Department, who had the knowledge and expertise to understand the situations children faced.
Children could also be put in foster care and no efforts were spared to keep siblings together and this was a primary consideration, even though it was not always immediately possible. To attract foster carers, the Government provided them with training, organized regular home visits, and increased the foster care allowance from €70 to €100 per week. Media and communications campaigns were also deployed to promote foster caring. As a result of these initiatives, the number of children placed in foster care had increased by more than 28 per cent. This increase could be interpreted in various ways, said the delegate and noted that if the children needed care and support that their biological families were unable to provide, it was in their best interest to be in foster care rather than in residential care.
Some institutions were called “homes” because they were more family-oriented and hosted fewer children, in which the Government sought to offer more “homely” environments. While the Catholic Church managed numerous residential homes, some were run by a foundation, with the Government’s assistance. Additional information would be provided so the Committee might have a better understanding of the range of care offered to children in Malta.
Alternative care and the protection of the minor were interdependent in the Government’s opinion, and that was why legislation under examination provided for the creation of the Directorate for the Protection of Minor and the Directorate for Alternative Care. The Government sought to put in place standards of care that were as high as possible, to ensure that the children were treated with dignity. As of 2018, children protection services had provided services to 700 children and employed 244 social workers, who, on average, followed 25 children.
Measures were in place to ensure that advisory boards reviewing children’s situations took into consideration issues raised by concerned parties, including children’s complaints and their parents’ opinion. Minors had various opportunities to voice complains, given that there were various professionals that interacted with them, the delegation assured and assured the Committee that no child was punished for complaining.
Domestic violence in Malta was an ex-officio offence, which meant that the Maltese Police could act out of its own will to address it. In these matters, courts made their decisions after having heard all concerned parties, including minors.
Responding to questions about health care, the delegation said that one of the priorities was
mental health services and that the Government was addressing a number of issues that had been raised during a recent consultation. Children had access to school counsellors, through which access to other mental health care professionals, such as psychiatrists, was facilitated. For emergencies, access to a psychiatrist could be provided on the same day. A waiting list was in place for non-urgent cases. The delegation explained that consultation on the mental health strategy had just been finalized and its results would be presented soon. The focus was the reduction of the number of people institutionalized and increasing community care. Prevention was an important component of the new strategy, which addressed the needs of children, and took in consideration the settings in which they lived and played.
Childhood obesity had been identified as a major health issue in the country, and a number of initiatives and legislative measures had sought to address it. Recent data from the World Health Organization had shown encouraging results as the obesity rates had plateaued for children aged six to nine, which the Government believed to be the first sign of a trend reversal. The Health Promotion and Disease Prevention had endeavoured to assess breastfeeding on the Maltese islands which had revealed a number of gaps and its findings would serve as a basis for improvement.
Abortion was illegal, said the delegation. Malta did not believe that the right to sexual and reproductive health amounted to a right to abortion, as this would go against the right to life, which was paramount. Young people had access to clinics where tests for sexually transmitted diseases were offered, and their right to confidentiality was guaranteed. The Government adopted a holistic approach to the issue of teenage pregnancy. Support for pregnant girls was available and they were encouraged to create support networks, with the aim of assist them in striking a balance between their responsibilities as young mothers and their needs as adolescents.
Malta was actively cooperating with international partners to address the harmful effects on the air pollution on children’s health. In fact, tackling air pollution was priority in a portfolio that the Government was putting together following its signature of the international treaty on the matter. Selling alcohol to a child under the age of 17 was illegal in Malta.
Malta was applying a human rights approach to disability and was guided by the social model, as embodied in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Malta had ratified in 2012. Parents were involved, principally as the legal guardians of minors, and efforts were made to ensure that biological parents also played as large a role as possible in the children’s lives, taking into consideration the best interests of the child. This was not only applicable when the child was disabled, but also when both the child and his parents were disabled.
Responding to the educational needs of children with disability was at once a challenge and an opportunity, noted the delegate and stressed that the Ministry of Education and Employment paid particular attention to the professional development of officials working with children with disability. Malta firmly held that the children with disabilities had the right join mainstream schools and all schools accepted children with disabilities. Additional information, including data, would be provided to the Committee at a later time.
In 2016, the Government had established a unit and launched a strategy on early school leavers which moved away from a one-size-fits-all approach and focused on early intervention. This generated improvement: in 2018, the early school leavers rate stood at 17.5 per cent. Malta also invested heavily in gifted children, seeking to understand children’s aspiration and building upon them, and had implemented measures on migrant children’s education, with the goal of building a cohesive society, through capacity building and the allocation of increased resources. A governmental unit provided support to migrant families, helping them go through school registration processes, and providing them with information on the Maltese education system.
The Ministry of Home Affairs had conducted, through the police, awareness-raising activities in schools that touched on cyber bullying, sexting and online safety. Multiple avenues were available for children to engage in social, cultural and recreational activities, such as the Heritage Pass which provided children free access to Maltese heritage sites. Malta believed that children should visit museums and heritage sites on a regular basis.
On juvenile justice, the delegation explained that the age of majority was 19 years however, in the criminal justice system, juveniles were children aged 16 and less. Nevertheless, the law allowed magistrates to assess the child’s maturity and act accordingly. Individuals aged 16 to 18 could not be tried by the Juvenile Court but criminal court judges took their age into consideration in sentencing.
OLGA KHAZOVA, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Malta, thanked the delegation for its responses and said that the Committee would strive to make its recommendations as useful as possible. Birth registrations, juvenile justice, and children asylum-seekers and migrants would be among the main issues of concern, she said. Violence would not, however, be presented as a pressing issue, perhaps due the State Party’s efforts and initiatives, notably on positive parenting.
MARISA SCERRI, Director-General for Social Policy in the Ministry for the Family, Children’s rights and Social Solidarity of Malta said the enriching discussions had given Malta the opportunity to take stock of the progress achieved and identify the challenges that remained. Malta valued the Committee’s comments as they contributed to its understanding of its obligations under the Convention. The Government would await the Committee’s concluding observations with great interest.
LUIS ERNESTO PEDERNERA REYNA, Committee Chairperson, said that the vast number of questions allowed the Committee to better understand the situation in the country and would enable it to formulate the best recommendations possible for Malta and its children. What was best for children was best for mankind, he stated. He asked the delegation to disseminate the Committee’s concluding observations in a format accessible to children.
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