The Malta Independent 25 September 2022, Sunday
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'Over the years AFM saved thousands of lives' – Home Affairs minister on migration

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 18 September 2022, 09:30 Last update: about 7 days ago

The Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) saved thousands of lives over the years, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri told The Malta Independent on Sunday when speaking about the migration situation in the Mediterranean.

Asked how he responds to criticism that the Maltese government is not doing enough to save lives, he said that the AFM has always conducted its work according to the law and will continue to do so.

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“When it’s raining, or when there is a storm and we would be in our beds at night, they (the AFM) would be out at sea saving lives and they never failed to do that and will never fail to do that,” he said.

The minister was being interviewed by this newsroom on Thursday. When challenged with the international criticism levelled by NGOs, that the AFM has ignored requests for support, he said it would be good to follow such allegations when they are made and check whether they are actually true or not, as on occasion journalists "only follow the story up to the allegation".

“Unfortunately the AFM is, in my opinion, continuously under unjust attack. They are professionals in their work, men and women with families who conduct their work daily. Over the years they saved thousands of people and sometimes the thanks some people give them, is to continue attacking them.”

In the past days, four-year-old Loujin lost her life while being airlifted to a Greek hospital from a boat in Malta’s Search and Rescue zone. The criticism being made is that she died because the AFM were too late to respond to the distress signal.

Challenged with this example, and asked how he defends that, he said that the AFM had issued a response to the news media that asked for their version "as some just reported what the NGOs said". This newsroom must point out that it had sent questions to the Home Affairs Ministry when the original international news reports about the boat were published, asking among other things whether a rescue was being organised or not, but no response was received.

“The AFM was clear in their answers. We followed international laws and did all we can to coordinate this rescue. If the AFM did not coordinate that rescue, today we would probably be speaking about more loss of life, as it was through their strength that lives were saved in that particular incident.”

“When speaking about such things, it is also good to speak about the options we have before us,” he said, referring to irregular migration and the risk of lives at sea.

“The options are to either fight human trafficking, as we, as a government believe and as we as a government do, and encourage these people not to cross in order not to risk their lives or the other option is what is currently happening – people continuously being placed in situations where they risk their lives. I sincerely cannot understand how some people genuinely believe, and I say genuinely, as when speaking to them you understand that they believe in what they are saying – that the best solution is not to fight human trafficking but to encourage people to risk their lives to find asylum in Europe. Sometimes, or many times in Malta's case, they would be people who would not have a right to asylum.”

He said that government is criticised daily for collaborating with the Libyan Coast Guard in the cases of boats leaving Libya. “I sincerely believe that this is the best solution to save lives.” He said that lives are always at risk the moment they are placed at sea, not just when they reach Malta’s Search and Rescue area.

Malta's cooperation with Libya has been criticised in the past, not just by NGOs, but also by the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights who said that Libya is not a safe place for disembarkation.

Told that there are many concerns as to the safety of Libya for migrants, the minister was asked whether this situation worries him. “So what is the solution? That you throw people into the sea and risk, as is happening, that we continuously see loss of life including in the Libyan search and rescue region? In my opinion that is not the solution. Maybe some believe that if 100 leave and 90 arrive that is the solution, but in my opinion it isn't the solution.”

The Maltese government has been pushing for more support from the EU on migration for years. Asked whether he has noticed any movement in that regard recently, the minister said that Malta made a “strong effort” over the past years.

“To have solidarity, you need to show that you are making a strong effort. Over the past years we made great efforts when it comes to the returns of people who do not have a right to asylum. We established a Returns Unit in the Home Affairs Ministry and its work is completely focused on returning people who either do not qualify for asylum or are in Malta irregularly, to their country of origin. Last year we had a record – around 450 people – who were returned to their country of origin, as they either didn't qualify for asylum as their application was refused or because they were in the country irregularly.”

The minister stressed the need to have a fair policy on migration. “If they remain in our country, as happened for many years, they would be taking the place of a migrant who truly deserves international protection. So we, through a fair migration policy, believe that if you have a right to asylum, you would have it along with all the rights that come with it. But we also believe that we need to be hard with those who do not have a right to asylum.”

“We started noting that even human traffickers from Libya began changing their routes to avoid Malta, when Malta made great efforts for those who are abusing the system to be returned to their country of origin.”

He said that Malta did receive support from other EU member states over the past years, both in terms of relocations, as well as with returns.

A proposal was made recently by a number of NGOs, pushing the introduction of a Bill to amend Malta's asylum legislation and declassify certain countries that criminalise LGBTIQ+ identities or behaviour as “safe”.

The minister was requested to provide the government’s stand on this proposal.

“Let's understand what this list of safe countries is. Around 22 EU countries have a list of safe countries, including France, Germany and Italy. This is used in order for people coming from countries on the list to undergo an asylum application process that would still be fair, but would be a bit more expedited.”

“If you have a right to asylum, you have a right to asylum, but if not, the process for that person to return to their country would start.”

The minister urged caution in the decisions that the government takes.

The minister said that LGBTIQ asylum seekers, in situations where there is a fear of something bad happening to them in their home country, should not be returned and should be granted asylum “as has happened”.

He stressed that the ministry does not interfere in the International Protection Agency processes.

“There were people over the past months and years who, despite coming from safe countries as defined in law, when coming forward and telling their story and who were seen to be credible, were given the right to asylum. The International Protection Agency also acts according to guidelines issued by the EU asylum agency. They adopted those types of guidelines to ensure that the process is fair, especially with people who are LGBTIQ+. Everyone knows I am very much in favour of their rights.”

He stressed the need to find balance, where decisions aren't taken that stall decisions regarding people who do not qualify for asylum as "in our opinion they would be taking the place of genuine refugees who have a right for asylum".

Pressed and asked whether he would support the Bill or not, he said: “I think that the safeguards are already in place. We are ready to continue adding safeguards,” adding however, that government must be careful that they do not create a situation where those abusing the system would be given a carte blanche to do whatever they want.

“Unfortunately, in the past that is what happened. A person would arrive in Malta, spend some time in detention, go to an open centre and the decision about their application would still have not been taken. We had an enormous backlog of decisions regarding asylum applications and then they wouldn’t be found when we looked for them. So what would have happened? The trafficker would have won, as a person who did not have a right to asylum would have arrived in Malta, after which you wouldn’t find them. They either would have hidden in the country, working in the shadow economy, or else would have somehow managed to escape to Europe.”

The minister said that when Malta started taking these types of decisions, he noted that traffickers themselves began issuing clear instructions not to go to Malta.

“The AFM constantly tells me of cases where, when they identify themselves as Maltese, the response they receive is not to approach them as they don't want to go to Malta, but would want to go elsewhere. This has been happening for a number of years.”

“Through the strength of these decisions we managed to achieve a fairer asylum policy.” While we must continue working for the rights of LGBTIQ+ people to be protected, he said, through the decisions the government takes it must ensure that the system is not destroyed.

 

Enough police officers?

The minister also answered questions related to the police force.

Questioned about police force numbers, and whether there are enough police on the streets, he said that the labour shortage is a challenge being faced in the nursing sector, the private sector... “The Malta Chamber of Commerce has been speaking about the lack of workers continuously recently. In our case it is a greater challenge as we are also speaking about people who would have 25 years of service; so the turnover in the disciplined forces is a bit higher.”

He said, however, that work to improve the efficiency of police force operations was undertaken.

As an example, certain tasks like the cleaning of police stations and their offices is now conducted by contractors, rather than police officers. He also spoke about the 160 civilians who are helping the Force in particular sectors “especially in highly specialised areas. For example there are crime analysts, financial crime analysts, along with other professionals”.

“Then it is up to us to attract more people to join the Police Force by offering better conditions. Government already sent an important signal when, around four years ago, it negotiated the first collective agreement with the Police. Now it is in its last year and so negotiations with Unions will commence so that we can ensure that the Police Force would have a collective agreement with better conditions and rights than there are now, while offering an attractive workplace.”

He said that the results the police are delivering show that it is more efficient. He said that the crime rate in the country dropped this year by 7% when compared to last year. He added that according to the Eurobarometer, the Police Force has the highest trust rating it has had in the past 10 years. “When I first became minister, I remember that trust in the force was 54%. Today it is 69%."

Asked about protests relating to lack of action by the police against people in power on past scandals, such as the Panama Papers or the Pilatus Bank inquiry, the minister doesn’t agree with them “and I don't think the people agree with them either. As I said earlier, the Eurobarometer itself shows that people's trust in the Police Force has increased. The police have the right and independence to conduct their investigations.”

"What they have done, over the past years especially, has seen very good results."

Turning to the recent revelations by Repubblika's president, Robert Aquilina, that the Magisterial Inquiry into Pilatus Bank had ordered the police to take action against certain bank officials, but that this has not happened, he said: “As a minister I do not comment on investigations as I do not have a part in those investigations.”

Asked whether he has any concerns that the police aren’t doing their job as they should, he said: “Repubblika chooses what to speak about a lot. When there were allegations on the Leader of the Opposition that was coming from someone close to them, it surprised me that they said nothing more, and then choose (to speak about) other things. So I leave it in the hands of the police and the courts as I have no doubt that our country's institutions do their job, as they always have."

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