The Sunday Times of Malta last week exposed a secret deal, which had been struck by Malta with the government of Libya, for the Armed Forces of Malta to ‘coordinate’ with the Libyan coastguard in intercepting migrants heading in the direction of the Maltese islands and then returning them to the war-torn North African country. A senior government source has admitted that talks about such cooperation between Malta and Libya on the subject first started about a year ago.

The report of the deal for “mutual cooperation” between the two countries was given added flavour as it was struck between officers of the AFM and the Libyan coastguard, with the notorious government official, Neville Gafà (who has faced repeated allegations of bribery linked to the issue of medical visas to Libyan nationals) acting as an intermediary in the secret negotiations.  Immigration ‘deals’ of this nature are invariably a murky business. In 2008, then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi entered into a ‘Treaty of Friendship’ with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi allowing Italy’s coastguard to deport boatloads of illegal immigrants swiftly back to Libyan shores. The deal was suspended in 2011, when Col. Gaddafi was toppled and killed.

For three years, Malta benefitted from a huge drop in migration in the central Mediterranean. But, in 2011, this was followed by a major surge in the flow of migrants as smugglers exploited Libya’s chaos to send thousands of people across the Mediterranean to Italy – incidentally, again sparing Malta during the height of the crisis.

The secret “cooperation deal” which Malta has struck with Libya consists of an ‘understanding’ that when there is a vessel loaded with migrants heading towards Maltese waters, the AFM will ‘coordinate’ with the Libyan coastguard to pick them up and then take them back to Libya before the vessel becomes Malta’s responsibility (which is at the moment she enters the Maltese search and rescue region).

The agreement reached by Malta and Libya is effectively leading to 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.

The key question is: do the ends justify the means? Although Malta may have been spared having to deal with hundreds of asylum seekers, the answer on moral grounds must be an unequivocal no. Libya is not party to the United Nations Refugee Convention and has no asylum system in place. It is not considered a ‘safe port’ by the United Nations. Detention camps there have regularly committed severe breaches of human rights.

Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’s special envoy for migration in the central Mediterranean, said that disembarking migrants in Libya was “certainly a violation of maritime law”. Human rights groups have repeatedly called on the European Union to stop its policy of allowing migrants to be returned to Libya where they face appalling conditions.

The European Commission had no comment to make about Malta’s secret deal, stating this was a bilateral matter between Malta and Libya. The fundamental problem is that the EU’s policies on migration are in disarray. While the EU recognises the Libyan coastguard and is also funding and training them, there is no overall agreement about how asylum-seekers should be dealt with in an equitable and EU-wide manner.

Until this happens, the Maltese government feels free – wrongly – to make hole-and-corner deals with Libya.