The Malta Independent 19 April 2024, Friday
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Using private assets for migrant rescues is not against international law – Prime Minister

Albert Galea Friday, 1 May 2020, 14:22 Last update: about 5 years ago

Using private assets to facilitate the rescue of migrants at sea is not against international law covering search and rescue, Prime Minister Robert Abela said on Friday as he defended how Malta has handled boats of migrants in the Mediterranean over the past days and weeks.

Multiple reports have emerged that Malta had coordinated the rescue of two boats of migrants at sea using private vessels - the first being a fishing vessel used to rescue a boat of 51 migrants, and the second being another fishing vessel chartered to rescue a group of 57 migrants yesterday.


The former group, with five corpses, was taken back to Libya, while the latter were transferred onto another private vessel - Captain Morgan's Europa II - which now lies just outside Maltese territorial waters.

Asked during a press conference on Friday, where the Prime Minister announced the relaxation of several restrictive measures which had been put in place to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, about the legality of using such private vessels, of the engagement of the controversial figure Neville Gafa in the rescue mission, and of discussions with the European Commission, Abela said that Malta had followed all its obligations.

He said that the Search and Rescue Convention which Malta is a signatory to clearly states that a country's obligation is to coordinate the rescue of people in distress. This can be done either with the country's own assets or through private assets, he said. "Nothing is stopping the state from using private assets", Abela pointed out.

"We know our obligations and have always abided by them, but we will remain firm in saying that our ports are not safe for the disembarkation of rescued people and that we cannot guarantee the resources for such rescues", he said.

"It is counter-intuitive to close the airport for tourists, close the ports for cruise liners, but then allow exceptions. There are hundreds of thousands of migrants in Libya ready to cross to Lampedusa and Malta.  It is our role to protect the national interest, but also to follow our international obligations", Abela said.

With regards to the involvement of Neville Gafa - himself a controversial figure, having once met with a Libyan militia leader and being at the heart of an alleged medical visa racket - Abela said that Gafa did not coordinate the mission, but was simply asked to make contact with people he knew in the Libyan Home Affairs Ministry so that lives could be saved. "His involvement was limited to that", he noted.

Meanwhile, he noted that discussions with the European Union are ongoing but that he was not satisfied with them.  He said that the EU is covering the expenses for the rescue of the most recent group of migrants but added that he will be insisting for a lot more.

"This is not just a Maltese problem: in fact this is a problem we are already taking in a lot more than we should, and we will continue to put pressure on other countries in the EU to share this weight as well", Abela said.

Asked by The Malta Independent what will happen to the migrants currently onboard the Europa II if an agreement with European countries is not reached and whether this potential lack in agreement would see them being taken back to Libya, Abela seemed to take umbrage at the line of questioning.

"I find it hard to understand how on such a nice day today, the start of a new normality for our people, you are only asking about immigrants", he began his answer.

"I think the subject has been exhausted; we can keep talking about it, I have no problem with that, but today is a day where we are moving towards this new normality where we have made this courageous next step towards this new normality - so I would appreciate if your questions are on the subject, a subject which we have been waiting for for a number of weeks", he said. 

He said that the people wanted positivity and hope, and further added that he remains committed on the immigration issue in that the government will remain clear in its position, that "our ports do not offer a secure point of disembarkation, and that this is not just Malta's problem but a problem for the whole of the European Union."

Asked a further question by another newsroom about the situation and about the exact nature of the involvement of Gafa, Abela again lamented at the line of questioning, implying that journalists were trying to put pressure on the government to open its ports in asking such questions.

"Another question about immigration; I will answer it because I have no problem in doing so but I am amazed at this line of questioning, as if it is to state that Malta should open its ports to irregular immigrants. That's how I am understanding this line of questioning and the pressure being put", he began.

"The government's position is one which is clear, and I will remain strong that what has been declared - that our ports does not offer a safe place of disembarkation for immigrants - will remain in force and I will keep holding that position", he continued.

"I have this obligation to the Maltese and Gozitan people and their health, and it cannot be that if there is some pressure, or a lot of pressure, or even enormous pressure we collapse under it and put the health of our people aside", he said.

He said that maybe that would make Malta look nice with the international community and would be the easy road, but it would bring the problem into Malta's lap.

He categorically denied that there was any pushback of any migrants.

"A rescue was carried out; had it not been for the Maltese government which coordinated that rescue then a lot of lives at sea would have been lost, because the EU passed by with a Frontex plane and kept on going", he said.

"Malta coordinated the rescue and saw that the migrants were taken to a port which was open; so, there was no pushback; in fact we saved a lot of lives", he added.

Gafa's only involvement, he repeated, was not to coordinate the operation but to contact Libyan authorities to facilitate the rescue.  "Nothing was paid, nothing was promised", he said.


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