Watch: PM denies Gafa coordinating rescue; says he was asked to use contacts

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

Prime Minister Robert Abela has denied claims made by former Office of the Prime Minister employee Neville Gafa that he had coordinated the search and rescue of asylum seekers left adrift in the Maltese search and rescue region.

Fielding questions from the media during a press conference in which the government announced that the health authorities will start easing off coronavirus related restrictions as from Monday after the country registered a rate of transmission below the value of 1 for two weeks. Abela told the media that Friday’s press conference was not on migration and urged the media to refrain from asking on the subject.

On Thursday, Newsbook.com.mt revealed that a Captain Morgan vessel has been chartered to house a group of 57 asylum seekers which were adrift the Maltese search and rescue region. The rescue operation was not carried out by the Armed Forces of Malta, instead the Maltese government asked a Libyan-flagged fishing trawler, Dar al Salam, to carry out the rescue. The fishing trawler was recently involved in the push back of a group of asylum seekers to Libya after it rescued them in the Maltese search and rescue area. Refoulement remains illegal under international law.

Following the incident, Newsbook.com.mt had reached out to Neville Gafa. He had told this newsroom that he was coordinating push backs for the past three years. He later added that he did not coordinate push backs but made sure that boats carrying asylum seekers fleeing war torn Libya did not enter Malta’s search and rescue region. A region which Malta is responsible of, and which the state has a positive obligation to save lives when a distress call is made.

Gafa had told confirmed that on Easter night and the days that followed he was involved in a mission in which a boat which carried 51 asylum seekers including eight women and three minors was returned to Tripoli. Five lifeless bodies were also on the same boat.

During the press conference on Friday morning, Abela categorically denied that Gafa had coordinated search and rescue missions and instead said that Gafa had mentioned of having some contacts with the Libyan authorities. Abela said that Gafa was asked to reach out to his contacts in Libya so that the asylum seekers in the Maltese search and rescue region are rescued. He underlined that Gafa’s involvement was limited to making such contacts and in no way did he coordinate any search and rescue.

Contacted on Friday for a reaction, Gafa refrained from commenting.

Abela stressed that Malta’s ports will remain closed to migrant landings and that the country could not guarantee search and rescue in the region which the state is responsible for due to the coronavirus pandemic. Adding that he had a duty towards the nation to protect the public health.

Abela claimed that the state had done its best to save lives. Abela maintained that Malta has always upheld its international obligation.

During the press conference, Abela said that there were discussions with the European Union, however, they did not lead to the desired outcome. He explained that with the recent case, the chartered Captain Morgan vessel will be paid using EU funds, stressing that no national funds will be used to finance the housing of asylum seekers offshore.

He said that he will be insisting with his EU counterparts to shoulder responsibility. Abela said that countries with a southern border could not face the issue of migration on their own and required European solidarity.

“I categorically deny any push back”

Abela said that the Maltese state coordinated a search and rescue mission however it categorically denied any push back concerning the recent controversial incident. Abela said that other states had their ports closed to migrant landings in a reference to neighboring Italy, and that Malta did too. Libya had also earlier announced that its ports are closed to migrants that leave the country irregularly.

Abela claimed that Malta coordinated a search and rescue operation and took the asylum seekers to an open port. International law obliges states to assign a port of safety when a rescue operation takes place. War torn Libya is not considered a safe port.

Abela stressed that Gafa was asked to contact the authorities to facilitate the rescue. ‘He didn’t get paid anything for it, he was not promised anything for it,’ Abela said referring to the incident.

An investigation by the New York Times it was revealed that the Maltese authorities have worked hard to ensure that no asylum seekers reach the country. According to the investigation, a small fleet of private merchant vessels has been dispatched at sea to intercept migrants and return them forcibly to a war zone. This information was provided by one of the captains of the boats in question, a senior commander in the Libyan Coast Guard and a former Maltese official involved.