Gafà, the social media provocateur, weaponises Labour's immigration problem

Neville Gafà, an ally of Keith Schembri, has become a social media antagonist to bolster Labour voters’ supports for an ‘anti-immigration’ petition to MPs

Friends: Neville Gafà (right) emerges from court with Keith Schembri, after the latter’s testimony in the case against Yorgen Fenech, alleged mastermind in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia
Friends: Neville Gafà (right) emerges from court with Keith Schembri, after the latter’s testimony in the case against Yorgen Fenech, alleged mastermind in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia

A man once trusted by the disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat to secretly deal with Libyan government and militias to stem the flow of the illegal migration to Malta, has become a social media antagonist on immigration.

Up until his master’s resignation in 2019 after the arrest of Yorgen Fenech over the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Neville Gafà’s Facebook cover photo sported the words ‘I Am A Socialist’. After his repudiation, the political renegade started flying his true colours: on Twitter he regularly salutes Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian far-right and anti-immigrant Lega party, or even posts videos of Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Italian far-right Fratelli d’Italia. It does not matter that Salvini has already proved unwilling to cooperate with Malta over migrant rescues on the sea borders of the two nations. Gafà is now a political pirate.

Gafà, who as a Maltese national has the unlikely combination of being of Muslim faith as well as an ardent support of the GNA government in Libya, today has carved himself a new role, eight months since being thrown out of the Labour administration.

Apart from being a visible ally of Keith Schembri, Muscat’s former chief of staff and intimate friend of Yorgen Fenech, Gafà acts as an agent provocateur on migrant issues on Facebook and Twitter.

Saluting far-rightist Matteo Salvini, a politician whose actions to refuse migrant rescues automatically hurt Malta
Saluting far-rightist Matteo Salvini, a politician whose actions to refuse migrant rescues automatically hurt Malta

With a sizeable following on social media, mainly Labour voters who think of him as a party loyalist, Gafà is promoting a petition to MPs that has garnered close to 40,000 signatories who are railing against “illegal immigrants” and do not want Malta to keep its harbours closed during “periods of serious health threats”.

The petition was launched on 24 April, at the height of the COVID-19 emergency, when Italy closed its ports and Malta followed suit. What happened next was a botched attempt by the Maltese government at forcing the EU’s hand by keeping almost 400 migrants rescued at sea on four tourist pleasure crafts anchored at Hurd’s Bank. The costly €1.7 million experiment failed to move anyone in Brussels, and the men and women were finally granted access to Malta and their right to file an asylum claim.

Gafà expresses solidarity with far-right firebrand Matteo Salvini and retweets videos of Palestinians, taken off their land by Israeli occupiers.

In the meantime, Gafà the former socialist wages his own war against the Labour establishment, chief among them is foreign minister Evarist Bartolo. As a confidant of the equally disgraced Keith Schembri, Gafà made Evarist Bartolo a main target over the latter’s unstinting criticism of Schembri. “To hit out at critics, you have to be pure of heart,” he once said on Facebook in an attack on Bartolo. “Don’t think we have forgotten that you once attacked the Prime Minister. Even while you led a delegation abroad! Before you judge Mr Schembri, I suggest you compare what you have achieved with his achievements for the good of Malta.”

By using his self-styled role as a migration intelligencer, Gafà’s statements on Facebook always come in the form of a ‘big reveal’ even when his information is sourced openly from the work of migrant rescue charities whose movements at sea are promoted on their websites.

“Right now there are manoeuvres to have Malta turned into a refugee camp,” Gafà said this week on Facebook after being hauled for questioning over alleged threats he made on Twitter to an Italian journalist, Nello Scavo of Catholic newspaper L’Avvenire. Like much of his statements on Twitter, usually addressed to migrant rescue alert Alarm Phone, Gafà’s combative language is all about ‘warning’ anyone assisting migrant rescues to “stop [their] dirty business”. Similarly, he tweeted to Scavo in July: “Stop your dirty business, if not we will be stopping you”. This, over Scavo’s reports on Malta’s attempted pushbacks of migrants rescued at sea.

Gafà lies. Malta is no refugee camp, although record arrivals this year will strain its capacities to host migrants rescued at sea in its detention centres. But that opener is only a prelude for his real target.

“I am being investigated by Malta’s police after a complaint was filed against me by a foreign journalist. A magisterial inquiry has been requested by the foreign ministry – the Maltese ministry, not a foreign one. No such complaints will stop me from fighting or broadcast what is happening in the Mediterranean. I haven’t even started. There are no compromises on Malta.”

His social media followers revel in the ‘Malta First’ talk. Former Labour candidates, councillors and party officials give him ‘likes’ and words of encouragement. “Thank you, Neville... keep telling us the truth,” is a common comment.

Gafà, a party insider, knows clearly that Labour’s electorate remains categorically the most concerned about migration. MaltaToday’s latest survey shows the main concern of PL voters (18.3%) was migration, a concern also mainly shared by those who live in Labour strongholds in the southeast (18.9%) and southern harbour (18.6%), and those with secondary (17.6%) and post-secondary education (18.2%).

To boot, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned immigration into an ‘illegitimate’ emergency: a country occupied with its own economic downturn and health emergency has little time for asylum claimants. Robert Abela has decided to throw money at the problem, quarantining asylum seekers rescued at sea on ships anchored outside Maltese waters – another expensive, human rights gamble intended at forcing European attention over Malta’s inability to host the current influx of migrants from Libya.

Gafà is maintaining an industrious role on Facebook. His social media posts are insidious and deceptive, lauding Libyan coastguards who bring in migrant boats attempting to leave Libya; and attacking migrant rescue NGOs, accusing them of doing “dirty business” and of being in league with traffickers for rescuing people at sea.

Yet no Maltese politician is facing up the challenge of delivering a realistic picture of migration, or to take on Gafà as he trades on his former influence to whip up Labour’s anti-immigrant support. That will test Labour as it proposes new shows of force and deterrence despite Malta’s clear human rights obligations.