Malta government asked Gafà to coordinate migrant pushbacks to Tripoli

Former OPM official insists return of migrant boat to Tripoli is not pushback: “I am ensuring the boats do not enter Malta’s search and rescue region.”

Neville Gafa (Photo: Facebook)
Neville Gafa (Photo: Facebook)

A former official in the Office of the Prime Minister, Neville Gafà, has confirmed to a magisterial inquiry into the deaths of migrants at sea, that he was asked by the Maltese government to coordinate a pushback of the boat migrants to Libya.

Gafà confirmed to that he has gave his sworn statement to Magistrate Joe Mifsud, who is leading the inquiry on the criminal complaint filed by the NGO Repubblika.

“I confirm that on Easter Sunday and the following days, I was involved in a mission so that a boat of 51 irregular immigrants, be taken to a port in Tripoli. The boat also had five dead bodies,” Gafà told the online newspaper.

Gafà claimed he took care that a boat with 30 tonnes of food and water be taken to Tripoli, and that it would not be targeted by air attacks.

Gafà is a supporter of the United Nations backed Government of National Accord, regularly posting tweets against the Haftar forces locked in a battle against the GNA for the country’s control.

He also said it was the OPM that asked him to coordinate directly with the Libyan ministry for the interior, but denied that he had coordinate a pushback. “I am ensuring the boats do not enter Malta’s search and rescue region.”

Neville Gafà has previously claimed that through his contacts in Libya, thousands of migrants would be saved at sea by the Libyan coastguard. The former official within the Office of the Prime Minister, told the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry on Wednesday that “Malta was spared thousands of immigrants”.

Gafà said he had a diplomatic passport because of his frequent travels to Libya. He was Muscat’s special envoy of sorts.

According to the NGO Alarm Phone, the Maltese authorities deliberately ignored a distress call and then coordinated the pick-up of a boatload of 63 people who were returned to Libya.

This episode has been enmeshed in a magisterial inquiry, with Magistrate Joe Mifsud leading the inquiry on a criminal complaint by Repubblika, a civil society NGO which has led the Daphne Caruana Galizia vigils and protests against the Muscat administration in 2019.

The complaint is two-fold: that the Maltese are responsible for this pushback, and that in a second episode, the P52 boat of the AFM sabotaged another migrant boat. The complaint accuses the AFM commander Jeffrey Curmi and Prime Minister Robert Abela of homicide. 

The issue is whether the refusal to take in the other boat in distress in Maltese SAR responsibilities makes Malta guilty of an act of refoulement, for the AFM ultimately coordinated the intervention of a commercial vessel to take the boat back to Libya. Since the boat potentially carried asylum seekers, the act of returning the migrants to the place they were fleeing from would be illegal in the eyes of international law.

Additionally, a boat belonging to Carmelo Galea, the Mae Yemanya, is believed to have been used to coordinate the pushback.