As an Air Malta flight to Algiers revs up its engines, the crew give each other a knowing glance. It will be another easy flight.
Of the over 100 passengers booked on the flight, only eight have actually turned up.
Air Malta’s former general sales agent for Algeria, Alex Fezouine, who was on that flight in 2015, says it was all too common to have 90 per cent no-show rates for these return flights.
He suspects that a racket operating right next door to Malta’s consulate in Algiers was selling Algerians false documentation and facilitating the process for them to obtain a Schengen visa to visit the island and then jet off to mainland Europe, never to return to Algeria.
“[Schengen] visa sellers have taken over the consulate [in Algiers] and the airline and started only sending illegal immigrants to Europe, through Malta of course,” Mr Fezouine wrote in an April 2015 e-mail to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.
Algerians applying for a Schengen visa needed to show proof of a local hotel booking and return flight from the island when applying for visas at Malta’s consulate in Algiers.
At the time of the alleged racket the consulate was headed by Robert Falzon, the Prime Minister’s first cousin, once removed.
Mr Fezouine took his suspicions of a visa-racket operating right outside the consulate’s door to Mr Falzon, and later to the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the Maltese police.
The Maltese-Algerian businessman, who runs a travel agency that was accused of receiving preferential treatment from the consulate prior to him blowing the whistle on the alleged racket, told The Sunday Times of Malta that the police did not show much interest in investigating the visa allegations.
Family ties with PM
Mr Fezouine said Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar, at the time an Assistant Commissioner responsible for immigration, cited the consul’s family ties to the Prime Minister as a complicating factor in the investigation.
Replying to questions, Mr Cutajar assured The Sunday Times of Malta that a full investigation was carried out and a report forwarded to the National Audit Office.
The NAO’s probe, published in January, discovered that 5,083 people flew in from Algeria between March 2014 and September 2015.
During the same period, only 2,664 people departed from Malta to Algeria.
This means arrivals from Algeria outstripped departures from Malta by almost 50 per cent.
Mr Fezouine insists the racket operated with complicity of people working in Malta’s consulate.
He says the police told him that he had not given them any proof of this racket.
“What were they expecting, a receipt from those operating the racket? All the police had to do was observe the passengers getting off the incoming flight from Algeria. They would scramble to the Air Malta desk upon landing to book themselves on the next flight to Paris”.
Visas for up to €8,000
Those operating the racket charged €4,000-€8,000 to provide visa applicants with proof of employment, pay slips, bank account and social security details, Mr Fezouine says.
The applicants would then be hustled off to a company housed in the same building as the consulate and contracted to process the visa applications.
Mr Fezouine said an investigation of the documents received by the police as part of the visa screening process would also have been a good starting point for an investigation.
“How could you have individuals from lots of different locations all supposedly working for the same company and presenting the same payslips,” he questioned.
He claims the immigration police in Malta became progressively more frustrated with the arrivals from Algiers and started shipping off people to detention in Ħal Far until their return flight, even when this was not necessarily warranted.
Mr Fezouine said he had to intervene one time when two Algerians from a tobacco distribution company who had their hotel booking cancelled due to overbooking were shipped off to detention in Ħal Far after the police found out their bookings at the original hotel did not exist.
The two Algerians were re-booked into another hotel and released, Mr Fezouine said, but around 10 people on the same flight were detained until their return flight the following week.
‘They needn’t go back’
Asked if the immigration police took to detaining Algerians on the Air Malta flight to prevent them from travelling to other destinations, the Police Commissioner told The Sunday Times of Malta that all third country nationals arriving in Malta needed to fulfil the necessary entry conditions.
“Those not doing so are refused entry and sent back. Algerians are not excluded,” the Police Commissioner said.
Questioned about the ‘ghost flights’ back to Algeria where only a fraction of the people booked on the return Air Malta flight showed up, Mr Cutajar said people issued with Schengen visas did not necessarily need to travel back to their country of origin from Malta.
“They may legally travel to other Schengen Member States within the term of validity of their visa, he said.
Mr Fezouine, who is well connected with the Algerian government, even offered to arrange the necessary logistics to fly the Maltese police out to the consulate in Algiers to witness the racket in action.
“Money was literally changing hands underneath the consul’s balcony. The police would have been able to see it all. Bribery. Fraud. Forgery”.
Mr Fezouine said in his April 2015 e-mail to the Prime Minister that the Algerian police were reluctant to act, particularly due to the potential diplomatic repercussions.
All the police had to do was observe the passengers getting off the incoming flight from Algeria
An Algerian diplomatic mission to Malta held discussions with then Foreign Minister George Vella as well as the Prime Minister about the high rate of Algerians not returning to the country after obtain their visas from Malta’s consul in Algiers
Mr Fezouine, who attended these meetings, said the Algerians knew it was a sensitive topic given that the Prime Minister’s relative was the consul in Algiers.
He said Dr Vella pointed towards figures showing that the visa refusal rate was in line with the average of other European countries.
Questioned about the concerns raised by Mr Fezouine, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s office said the Maltese-Algerian never applied for whistleblower protection.
“Mr Fezouine filed a report with the authorities. As with any other report, the police investigated the allegations in the report. The conclusions of the police investigation were submitted to the NAO, which carried out a thorough investigation.
“The NAO report concluded that on this case the government had taken satisfactory actions following the allegations, since it directed the reports to the police. The European Commission also looked into the said allegations,” the spokeswoman said.
Questions sent to Air Malta about the ‘ghost flights’ were not answered by the time of writing.
Paying the price?
Mr Fezouine says he paid the price for raising his concerns about the visa scheme, becoming a virtual pariah in Malta after enjoying decades of good relations with the authorities having long assisted Malta business links with Algeria.
He says the consulate started holding up the visa process for his travel agency clients or providing them with visas that had already expired by the time their passports were picked up.
The NAO says in its report that from late 2014 to August 2015, various allegations were made by his travel agency XL Travel regarding irregularities in the issuance of visas by the consulate.
It however noted that in the period immediately preceding this, XL Travel was at the centre of multiple accusations levelled by an unnamed person, alleging that the travel firm was receiving preferential treatment from the consulate.
The report says XL Travel was also on the receiving end of accusations by an unnamed individual involving the fraudulent issuance of visas.
The NAO notes in its report that the relationship between his travel agency, XL travel, and the consulate, became “strained” in October 2014. The NAO found correspondence between the consul and Air Malta on October 27, 2014, referring to the fact that XL Travel was promoting a Malta-Paris stay on social media.
The consul advised Air Malta to stop XL Travel from mentioning the facilitation of Schengen visas, as this was attracting visa shoppers.
In apparent contrast to the Police Commissioner’s replies to this newspaper, the consul asserted in this correspondence that a visa for such a travel itinerary [involving onward travel from Malta] could not be issued.
In December 2014, the NAO said that the consul referred correspondence from XL alleging wrongdoing in the visa processing to the police.
According to the NAO, the consul insinuated that the allegations were being driven by the fact that he [Robert Falzon] had introduced XL Travel’s replacement as Air Malta’s agents to the airline, as well as the recent refusal of visas to XL Travel clients.
Mr Fezouine insists that he resigned from his position as an Air Malta agent after becoming disgusted with the inaction over the ‘ghost flights’ and visa racket.
In March, two months after the NAO’s report was published, Mr Fezouine was informed by Identity Malta that his Maltese citizenship was being revoked as it “appears to have been obtained by fraud”.
After PN MP Jason Azzopardi last week accused the government of maliciously revoking Mr Fezouine’s citizenship, Julia Farrugia Portelli, the Parliamentary Secretary for Citizenship, pointed towards a 2002 court judgement annulling his marriage to a Maltese woman in 1995.
Mr Fezouine denies this is the case and intends to ask for an internal inquiry.
He says he is not very optimistic about the outcome, as the committee of inquiry, chaired by retired judge Philip Scibberas, cannot revoke the Identity Malta decision but merely forward a recommendation to the minister in charge of citizenship.
The citizenship portfolio falls under the Prime Minister’s ultimate control.
What were the NAO’s findings?
The NAO established that the government was aware of the allegations. It deemed action taken by the government as appropriate, as both the consul and the Foreign Minister informed the police about the alleged irregularities.
The NAO said the police took action by seeking the views of persons of interest, in particular the consul and the “Algerian travel agent”, from whom most allegations originated.
“Whether any other action could have been taken by the government remains subject to debate, conditioned by the context within which the consulate was operating, as well as its operational set up.
“Moreover, the NAO acknowledges that there were aspects of the allegations beyond the control of the consulate, particularly the involvement of VFS and other agents in the visa process,” the report said.
The NAO’s analysis found that 484 of the 6,779, visas issued between March 2014 and September 2015, were not recommended for approval by the immigration police, yet the visas were subsequently approved by the consul.
The police recommended these visas for refusal because the applicants’ intentions to leave EU territory before the expiry of their visa could not be ascertained and justification for the purpose and conditions of the intended stay was not provided, the report said.
Conversely, it was also discovered that there were 865 applications where the police posted no adverse remarks yet the consul refused the issuance of a visa.
E-mail correspondence obtained by the NAO led auditors to “note” that the consul initially lacked the necessary experience for the running of a consulate.
The report also revealed that Malta was mentioned in two alerts issued by Frontex about the possible illegal immigration of Algerian nationals and Maltese visas obtained fraudulently in Algiers.
According to the Frontex alerts, Algerian women and children were departing Algiers with a transit through Marseille in France to the final destination in Malta. However, their intention was to stay in the EU territory, possibly France, given that at times they only had tickets to Marseille and without money to justify their stay as tourists in Malta.
The NAO said the investigation of alleged payments to government officials for preferential treatment in the obtaining of visas did not fall within its remit.