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Winner of UN Refugee Service Award Calls for Improved Refugee Protection

This year's winner of the Nansen Refugee Award is appealing to governments to treat asylum seekers and refugees with compassion and to seek humane alternatives to detention. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees bestowed the honor, which is its highest award for outstanding service to the cause of refugees, to a 37-year-old lawyer with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Malta for her work in helping hundreds of asylum seekers locked up in administrative detention. In an interview with VOA, Katrine Camilleri describes the difficulties faced by people fleeing from persecution and deprivation. Lisa Schlein reports from Geneva.

Nansen winner, Katrin Camilleri calls the award a great and unexpected honor. She tells VOA the award is important because it highlights work that is often misunderstood and unpopular.

"And highlights more than work, highlights situations and suffering which is often far away from the media spotlight, out of the public eye," she said. "It is like it is not happening."

Malta is a transit country for many migrants trying to reach the European mainland. The majority are asylum seekers from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Camilleri says these people arrive in Malta after a very long, difficult and dangerous journey. She says many have crossed the Sahara desert. They've lived in foreign countries under brutal, often threatening conditions before arriving on the island.

"And they cross the Mediterranean and they end up in Malta where they are locked up in a detention center for many, many months even if they apply for asylum…Asylum seekers can remain in detention for up to 12 months," she said. "They have to stay in detention until their asylum claim is processed…Last year, because of bureaucratic reasons, applications took even longer to process. So, we have a large number of asylum seekers who are being released without having been interviewed."

Camilleri has been providing legal advice to detained asylum seekers since 1997. She focuses mainly on the most vulnerable. They include victims of trauma or torture and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

Last year, about 1,800 migrants arrived in Malta. She says most of the arrivals are men. But, there also are a significant number of women and children. And, their situation of confinement, she says is even more deplorable than that of the men.

"Unfortunately, women are detained in the same detention center as men," she said. "Not only in the same center, but actually in the same compound. In one section of the center you would have single women, couples, men and women, and even at times single men. So, there is a big risk we feel of abuse within the centers."

Camilleri says detention centers are terrible places and they should be avoided as much as possible. She says services in the public centers where the migrants stay after they are released are inadequate and must be improved. She says children and other extremely vulnerable groups should never be detained.

As a Nansen Award winner, Camilleri receives a commemorative medal and $100,000. The Maltese lawyer tells VOA she will use the prize money to pay for projects aimed at improving the lives and future prospects of vulnerable migrants who have limited options.