Minister delivers snark but no explanation on AFM’s failure to respond to distress calls

Updated 01:06 PM
Joan Mateu Parra

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri responded in what has become the government’s characteristic catty manner in response to a query concerning asylum seekers.

The Labour Party said that the PN should be ashamed of attacking the soldiers through John Ellis’ comments in parliament.

Nationalist Party MP Joe Ellis’ parliamentary question concerned the rescue of 96 people in Malta’s search-and-rescue area on 2 January. The rescue was carried out by the rescue vessel Open Arms, which is operated by the humanitarian NGO bearing its name.

Malta refused to allow the ship entry, and the rescued souls ended up docking at Porto Empedocle in Sicily.

The group had made contact with another humanitarian NGO, Alarm Phone, which operates a hotline for asylum seekers hoping to reach safety in Europe through a dangerous sea crossing.

Alarm Phone has long complained that the AFM was refusing to respond to distress calls, and made the same complaint with respect to this rescue. But the AFM, and the government, are yet to properly address such claims.

Ellis thus asked the minister to state what steps he had taken to investigate the AFM’s failure to respond to a call for assistance within Malta’s SAR zone.

Camilleri insisted that the MP’s question was based on “mistaken assertions”, though he failed to explain why this was the case. Instead, he chose to interpret the MP’s remark as a call to punish AFM personnel.

“I hope he will not seek to file another criminal complaint against AFM members,” referring to the one made by NGO Repubblika last year over the deaths of at least five asylum seekers within Malta’s SAR zone, and over claims – which had not been denied – that the AFM had sabotaged a dinghy carrying another group of people. Ellis – who was not yet an MP at the time – had been one of the lawyers who filed the complaints on the NGO’s behalf.

Back then, Prime Minister Robert Abela – who was also subject to a criminal complaint over the matter – had hyperbolically insisted that Repubblika wanted to send him to prison for life.

An inquiry led by Magistrate Joseph Mifsud, a former member of the Labour Party’s executive, cleared the AFM and Abela of any wrongdoing.

Ellis had also been involved in a complaint Repubblika made to the Attorney General over what it felt were “serious shortcomings” in Mifsud’s inquiry.

Camilleri concluded his reply to Ellis’ question with a spot of political grandstanding.

“The steps I took have led to soldiers enjoying better working conditions today,” he said.