[WATCH] Malta PM: ports shut to migrants until EU agrees relocation

Prime Minister Robert Abela insists in meeting with European Commission president that Malta's ports will remain closed to migrants until a relocation solution with other member states is found

Prime Minister Robert Abela fielded questions from the press after testifying in a criminal inquiry filed by NGO Repubblika over migrants left in distress at sea
Prime Minister Robert Abela fielded questions from the press after testifying in a criminal inquiry filed by NGO Repubblika over migrants left in distress at sea
Malta PM: ports shut to migrants until EU agrees relocation

Malta's port will remain closed to all irregular immigrants until an EU agreement is found for their relocation, Robert Abela said.

The Prime Minister said that, in a meeting with the European Commission president on Friday, he had stood firm and insisted that no migrants would be allowed entry in Maltese ports before a solution is found for them to be relocated to other member states.

He said that Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had requested that a group of migrants currently being kept on a Captain Morgan tourist ferry outside of Maltese's territorial waters be allowed disembarkation in Malta.

Abela, however, said he had refused that option, and demanded that an EU-level solution is first found before any migrants are brought in.

"I had a rather long discussion with the European Commission president on Friday, and our positon is that a solution must be found with the Commission first. Before such a solution is found, Malta won't permit the migrants into our ports."

"The Commission's approach was to start the other way round - to first allow them in and then discuss relocation. But we stood our ground and said this wasn't satisfactory. We know what happened in the past, when migrants were allowed in and no relocation solution was subsequently found," he said. 

"We must first find a solution, and the relocation can take place."

Abela was addressing the press on Monday after testifying before Magistrate Joe Mifsud in the criminal inquiry on a police report filed by Repubblika over a government decision during the Easter weekend to close Malta’s ports and ignore migrants in distress at sea, despite the imminent danger they were in.

On the situation of the 56 migrants currently onboard the Captain Morgan boat, the Prime Minister assured that they were being "kept comfortable."

"They are being given food, water and medical supplies," he said.

"At the end of the day, I remind that we are talking about people. Let's not forget this. This has nothing to do with racism - it's because of the COVID-19 situation the country is facing and the fact we don't have the capacity for more migrants."

No migrant pushback took place - Abela

Asked by MaltaToday why the government had chosen to house the migrants on a leisure boat this time around, unlike what had happened in the case before that - when Malta dispatched a small fleet of private merchant vessels to intercept migrants at sea and return them by force to Libya - Abela denied that a pushback had taken place on that occasion.

"I absolutely don't agree there was a pushback. The situation in the case - and about which I have just testified before the magistrate - was one were a private vessel was used beause all state assets were spread over five other rescue mission which were taking place at the same time," he said.

"Maybe not everyone might kno this, but on Easter Sunday there were five missions taking place at once. We had utilised state assets - patrol boats and planed - but together with these we also needed to make use of private vessels to cope with all the rescue missions and to ensure that, as far was was possible, not a single life was lost."

Abela insisted that the course of action chosen at the time was in line with international laws.

"On that occsions, we used a private vessel. Any passing boat which receives a NAVTEX is obliged by international law to provide assistance. So what we did was in compliance with the SAR Convention, which stipulates that a State must use both its own assets as well as commercial assets to undertake rescues," he said.

Abela added that the migrants were not 'pushed back' to Libya, but were taken there because the private vessel which rescue them was flying a Libyan flag.

"I remind that the vessel which handled the rescue was flying a Libyan flag. Malta and Lampedusa's ports were closed, so it took the migrants over to its flag state, Libya."

The inquiry

The inquiry is probing two things: an alleged incident in which soldiers were accused of sabotaging a migrant vessel, and on a general scale, Malta’s reluctance to carry out rescue missions in its SAR and the return of migrants back to Libya.

The first allegations involving the soldiers has been rejected with new evidence contradicting the claim made originally by NGO Alarm Phone.

However, the magistrate is now looking into whether Malta has adhered to its international obligations to coordinate rescues in its SAR and identify a port of safety for rescued migrants.

The criminal complaint was filed against the Prime Minister and army commander Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi. Curmi testified last week.