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27th Sep 2021

Deaths at sea case raises questions over Malta's role

  • Malta's government is under fresh scrutiny for its alleged role in a push-back of migrants at sea (Photo: Neil Howard)

Malta's government allegedly outsourced a push-back of migrants over the Easter weekend where at least twelve people died.

The revelation comes via a sworn testimony by a former operative inside the prime minister's office.

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"It is the first time that there has been admission of this, and the government continues to be silent," Manuel Delia, a journalist and a committee member of the Malta-based NGO Repubblika, told EUobserver on Thursday (30 April).

The NGO filed a police report, which started a criminal investigation into the deaths of those onboard a rubber boat carrying 63 people, and which had departed from Libya on 9 April.

The boat was spotted three days later in Malta's search-and-rescue zone, before those onboard were eventually sent back to Libya. Only 51 landed in Libya alive. Seven were declared missing and another five corpses were recovered from the boat.

At the heart of the controversy is Neville Gafa, an individual who belonged to an inner circle of Maltese politicians probed for their suspected role in the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Gafa is cited in a Maltese media outlet saying he had received instructions from the prime minister's office, for the past three years, to ensure migrants never reached Malta's search and rescue zone.

"I did all this on the instructions of the Office of the Prime Minister, after the said office asked me to assist through direct coordination with the Libyan home affairs ministry and the Libyan Coast Guard. I was asked to do this since I have been involved in these operations for the past three years," he said.

This latest incident, however, took on a more sinister role because a Maltese boat flying a Libyan flag is said to have been behind the push-back, which occurred within Malta's area of responsibility.

The boat is said to have left Malta's Grand Harbour, arrived at the scene with its flag removed and name painted over, in a broader operation coordinated by the armed forces of Malta.

Despite a port entry ban on all foreign ships because of the pandemic, the boat was allowed to return to Malta's Grand Harbour after sailing to Libya.

Alarm Phone, a crisis hotline for migrants in need of rescue at sea, said Malta had effectively abandoned their international duties and left the victims to die.

They said authorities in Malta, Italy, Libya, Portugal, Germany, as well as the EU border agency Frontex had all been informed about the group.

"The distress case has been known to the European authorities for six days, upon aerial sighting by a Frontex asset on April 10," it said.

Malta responds

For its part, Malta says they didn't rescue the people because the boat had already been in distress for a number of days while in Libya's search and rescue area.

"The European Union was aware of the boat as it was located in Libya's search and rescue area. The EU flew its aircrafts over the area but did not send any vessels to pick up the migrants," it said, in a statement.

It further added a Libyan fishing vessel took the migrants on board, in what now appears to be the boat under fresh scrutiny.

Asked to comment on the incident, Frontex' chief Fabrice Leggeri told MEPs earlier this week that they had spotted at least four boats leaving Libya over the Easter break.

Leggeri said they had monitored the boats constantly for five days, sharing the sightings with all maritime rescue coordination centres.

"Of course, we insisted more on the ones that were competent, depending on the places where the boats were but our practice is that we inform, we share in real-time the sightings with all maritime rescue coordination centres," he said.

The European Commission, when pressed, refused to weigh-in on the case. A spokesperson told this website it cannot provide any legal analysis because search and rescues are outside its remit.

"Nor am I in a position to say about what would be the consequences under this or that scenario," he said.

The EU has helped finance and set up Libya's search and rescue zone to the tune of some €90m.

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