Libyan authorities are responsible for certain rescue operations at sea, Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia said, reacting to a reported secret deal on migrant interceptions in the Mediterranean.

Dr Farrugia told Times of Malta that, according to international law, there were some scenarios in which the Libyan coast guard were the competent authorities for a rescue operation in the Mediterranean.

He was reacting to a report in The Sunday Times of Malta about a deal reached between the Maltese and Libyan authorities for “mutual cooperation” on rescue missions.

The agreement is effectively resulting in the Libyan authorities picking up the lion’s share of migrants who attempt the treacherous sea crossing and returning them to Libya before they reach European shores.

Michael Farrugia on the migration deal. Video: Mark Zammit Cordina

Libya is not considered a safe port by the United Nations and detention camps there have regularly been tied to severe human rights breaches.

Sources told Times of Malta that the deal was struck between the Armed Forces of Malta and the Libyan coast guard, with controversial OPM official Neville Gafá acting as a mediator.

Asked about meetings between the two sides, Dr Farrugia played them down, saying that just because AFM members met their counterparts from another country it did not mean this was done in secret or that a secret deal was negotiated.

“There are discussions that happen; they happened in the past and will continue happening in the future,” he said. Dr Farrugia was also asked to weigh in on an incident in which the Libyan coast guard reportedly entered into Malta’s search and rescue zone to intercept a boat packed with migrants and returning them to Malta.

The operation, which reportedly occurred last month, has been flagged by Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean, who believes the case could have constituted a violation of maritime law.

Dr Farrugia, however, said that the migrant vessel was “on the high seas” and not in Maltese territorial waters.

“If the Libyan authorities felt there was a criminal (investigative) reason or whatever other reason for interception, then they can intercept (the vessel),” the minister said.

Dr Farrugia said that, in this particular incident, the Maltese rescue coordination centre had not yet officially taken over responsibility for the matter and the interception by the Libyan authorities was, therefore, above board.

Asked whether Malta recognised the Libyan coast guard and felt comfortable allowing them to handle migrant rescues, he pointed his finger at Brusselsm saying the European Union recognised the Libyan authorities and was also funding and training them.

The minister also said it was time to revisit the international laws governing rescues at sea.

This, Dr Farrugia said, was something he had long been advocating during bilateral meetings with other member states and something that would stop abuse by human traffickers.

Meanwhile, Times of Malta reached out to the European Commission for a reaction to the reported Malta-Libya deal.

A spokeswoman for the Commission said this was a bilateral matter about which Brussels had no comments to make.

Inquiry into alleged manhandling of migrants

Minister Michael Farrugia said a board of inquiry set up to look into allegations that migrant inmates at the Corradino Correctional Facility had been manhandled had been given six weeks to deliver its report. This, he said, could be extended if needed.

“The priority is, of course, for the inquiry to be conducted with the utmost seriousness,” he said.

The Sunday Times of Malta reported last month that a number of migrants charged in court over their involvement in a riot at ─Žal Far had been manhandled, packed like sardines in a cell, locked up all day and humiliated.

Sources said the migrants were manhandled in prison by members of the Special Response Team, who also used batons. Some prison warders, also known as correctional officers, were reportedly also involved. The Correctional Services Agency of Corradino strongly denied the allegations.

Dr Farrugia said the government had appointed a board of inquiry, led by a retired judge, to draw up a report into the allegations.

The board had a six-week window to complete its investigation.

The completed report would then be handed to the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs. 

If the allegations were verified, then appropriate steps would be taken, he said.

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