Between 1,500 and 2,000 people wash up on Malta’s shores each year, and the country’s immigration officers handle every boatload the same way. First, migrants arriving from the sea are taken onto a bus and told they’ll be locked up until they’re sent back to their home countries. Then they’re driven to a detention center, where each receives a Removal Order telling them they’re a “prohibited immigrant,” a leaflet explaining how to apply for asylum, and an identification number. In February 2009, Aslya Aden Ahmed’s identification number was 09C-020. It was the only part of the process that she understood. Everything had been done in English, a language she could not speak.

Aged 21, Aslya, a refugee from Somalia, found herself locked in a stinking dormitory with 40 strangers at Malta’s Ta’Kandja detention center. In the first fortnight, fellow detainees helped her fill out an application for asylum. It was rejected, and Aslya was told she would be jailed for 15 months, then sent back to Somalia. She escaped and went on the run for 14 months, until, pregnant, she surfaced in the Netherlands, claimed asylum, and was immediately sent back to Malta in accordance with European law, under which refugees are the responsibility of the EU country in which they first arrive. One month later, Aslya miscarried, and for more than a year she was kept in a room in Malta’s Lyster Barracks detention center with 22 other women, 23 hours a day. For three months in 2012, none of them were allowed outside at all.

If this sounds like prison, that’s because it’s supposed to. By law, the 600,000 people detained every year in Europe should be exceptions, held briefly until either their asylum applications are processed or they’re sent back to their countries of origin. In reality, detention is the rule, and the EU’s detention centers are used as deterrents: brutal enough to make migrants stay away or to want to leave once they arrive. As such, they don’t work. Many detainees in Malta have fled far more threatening conditions in Libya, and few planned to come to one of the world’s smallest and most crowded countries. Most, with scant seafaring experience, aimed their overloaded, inflatable dinghies for Italy and missed. Out of fuel and adrift, their rescue by Maltese ships was a matter of life or death.

In theory, Aslya was detained while arrangements were made to send her back to Somalia. Everyone involved, however – the guards, the migrants, the authorities – knew that for reasons of cost and human rights, no one has ever been sent back to Somalia from Malta. When Aslya was eventually released after 18 months detention – the longest period permissible under EU law – her deportation proceedings had not even begun.