Prime Minister Robert Abela has admitted commissioning a boat that returned migrants to war-torn Libya on Easter weekend but has insisted it was a rescue mission and not a pushback.
A boat commissioned by Maltese authorities picked up a group of migrants in the search and rescue area earlier this month and returned them to the North African country.
It is a crime under international law for states to return asylum seekers to a country where they are likely to face persecution.
Speaking publicly about the controversy for the first time on Friday, Abela admitted the manoeuvre and defended the government's actions.
"There was no pushback,"he said.
"There was a rescue of migrants. Had the Maltese government not coordinated, tens of lives would have died, because a [EU coastguard] Frontex plane just flew overhead and kept on going.
"Malta's ports are closed but it coordinated this rescue and ensured that the irregular migrants were taken to the port that was open."
The country, along with Italy, closed its ports, citing concerns about the spread of coronavirus.
Former OPM official Neville Gafa claimed under oath this week that he had coordinated the pushback.
Asked Gafa's involvement, Abela said his only involvement was liaising with a contact he was claiming to have in Libya so that the rescue could be facilitated. He said Gafa was not paid or promised anything.
Abela defended using a private boat, saying that a Search and Rescue convention stipulates the legal obligations of individual states that are not obliged to carry out the actual rescues but to coordinate such rescues.
The obligations also state that countries can use their own assets or else send private assets to rescue boats in distress, he said.
This week, Malta has commissioned a Captain Morgan tourist boat Europa II, to house migrants until a solution for their disembarkation is found.
“We are ready to do anything to save lives. We have nothing to be ashamed of,” Abela said, adding that the cost for the Captain Morgan boat being used to temporarily house migrants outside Maltese waters will come from aid by the EU.
“Malta’s position is clear and we know what our obligations are. We are going to remain firm on this. We are not a safe port and we cannot guarantee our resources for rescues.
"We are duty bound to stick to this position. It is counterproductive to close port and airports to tourists but then open ports for irregular migrants. There are hundreds of thousands of people on the Libyan coast wanting to leave there and come to Lampedusa and Malta. We are obeying international rules,” he insisted.
He said the migration problem should not be "Malta's alone" and called for the EU to intervene.
Earlier on Friday, Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo told Times of Malta that “the EU was responsible for a huge push back of migrants to Malta”.
He said its failure to set up an effective and fair solidarity mechanism to share the burden of welcoming irregular migrants means that Malta had borne a huge burden over the years.
He quoted a letter from a United Nations official to him in which he admitted that Europe needed to adopt a more principled migration policy that will serve European needs, that does not penalise those seeking to cross, and that does not leave countries like Malta, which are trying to do the right thing, on their own.
“If we continue to fail, more people, Libyans and non-Libyans, will be compelled to seek safety on the European side” because of the ongoing war and the economic consequences of Covid-19.
Bartolo said that in the first three months of the year, 3,600 irregular migrants left the Libyan coast through the Central Mediterranean route. This is over 400 per cent more than in the same period in 2019. Some 1,200 came to Malta.
He said Malta’s centres were "overflowing" and there is no room for more migrants.