The Maltese authorities’ efforts at sea are “critical” in defending European borders, the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement believes.

Olivér Várhelyi told Times of Malta during a brief visit that the experience gained by the island’s armed forces at sea is “crucial” for Brussels to understand human smugglers’ “business model” and devise an effective strategy to crack down on illegal migration.

The experience gained by the Maltese navy is so crucial and critical for us to understand the business model that the smugglers have developed- Olivér Várhelyi

It should not be up to smugglers to decide who entered Europe – it was up to the bloc to determine who made it, he insisted.

Várhelyi also warned that if Libya wanted to continue cooperating with Europe on migration, its coastguard had to operate in line with international humanitarian law during search-and-rescue operations.  

The Hungarian diplomat was in Malta for meetings with Prime Minister Robert Abela, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri, Energy Minister Miriam Dalli and Foreign Affairs Minister Ian Borg. He also visited the Armed Forces of Malta and its Maritime Squadron.

Over the past years there have been several claims of Malta’s failure to assist migrants at risk, with the island being involved in a controversial operation in 2020 to return people to war-torn Libya.

In 2021, the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency flagged Malta’s “intensified efforts” to stop asylum seekers from disembarking on the island.

More recently, senior Italian politician Tommaso Foti hinted at growing tensions between Italy and Malta about the issue. Maltese authorities deny the existence of any plan to systematically ignore rescue calls.

Video: Chris Sant Fournier

‘It’s not for smugglers to decide who reaches EU’

Q. Over the past years Malta has been criticised for not rescuing or helping people at sea, and more recently Italian politician Tommaso Foti said Malta pretends not to see people at sea. What are your observations about this?

A. We discussed Malta’s work with the ministers and the AFM, and I think all the search-and-rescue operations that the Maltese navy is undertaking are fundamental. I was lucky enough to see the new equipment purchased expressly for that. I’ve also seen the arrangement of the boat which is designed for SAR operations so I would imagine the boat is being bought for that purpose. Otherwise, it wouldn’t serve the funding it has received.

To be honest, our view is that the work Malta is doing is a critical contribution to our European migration policy. Malta is the closest – from our member states – to the Maghreb region, and it is facing the direct challenge of smugglers and the illegal migration phenomenon. The work of the navy and the administration of the Maltese government is critical also when it comes to defending European borders and this is why I think we need to continue to rely on them and continue to support them in their work.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by critical? Critical for who, for what?

Critical for Europe to exercise control over its borders. If you look at the map, Malta is the closest EU member state, and this is why the experience gained by the Maltese navy is so crucial and critical for us to understand the business model that the smugglers have developed and what strategy to apply to crack down on that business model.

You mentioned control of borders and smugglers. But then there are the people in between – the victims, the migrants. The EU also funds the training of the Libyan coastguard, which is monitoring the area and returning people to Libya. This contradicts calls by human rights activists and organisations to change the policy of returning people to a war-torn country. What are your comments about these people caught in between, migrants who are seeking asylum?

We are providing training to the Libyan coastguard so that they understand the European requirements and human rights requirements, and act in accordance with that. This is why we are financing and providing this training. Through this, we hope that their practice will change. We’ve already seen a significant change in their practices and in keeping with these rules.

What I think is most important is that migrants are exploited by smugglers,  financially and sometimes even inhumanely. We need to pass a clear message to them: do not trust smugglers, because smugglers are not interested in them arriving to Europe and surviving the trip. The only thing that smugglers are interested in is getting their money.

But isn’t returning them to Libya, pushing them to Libya, also a breach of their human rights?

It’s dependant on eligibility for asylum. First of all, don’t engage in illegal activity to get to another country. If you want to get to another country, first you apply for a visa, a humanitarian visa and asylum, and then embark on a journey that is safe. Travelling with smugglers is never safe. Don’t trust smugglers.

So does Europe have any plans to open more safe passageways, as we’ve seen it doing with Ukraine, but  with people coming from Sub Saharan Africa, or Syria, for example?

You should never mix immigration policy with illegal migration. Immigration policy is the national competence of member states.

We are also creating possibilities for people to come legally to Europe,  scholarships and training possibilities, and if you are successful, most probably you will stay in Europe.

But it’s not for the smugglers to decide who gets to Europe. It’s for Europe to decide who gets to Europe.

You said you’ve seen a change in the attitude of the Libyan coastguard. What do you mean? What change have you seen?

The training has had an impact. Their procedures have started to reflect, though not fully, our rules and norms. But we should also be very clear about the need to crack the smugglers’ business model because they are exploiting the vulnerability of these people and they want to put them at risk intentionally.

In practical terms are you talking about a change towards migrants themselves? There have been claims and footage of the Libyan coastguard opening fire on people, on boats. Are you talking about that?

Any of those actions are clearly against international law and cannot be considered legal in any shape or form. This is why we are very clear about this with the Libyan coastguard: if they want to cooperate with us, they have to apply international humanitarian law and our rules when it comes to SAR operations. 



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