Migrants detained aboard Captain Morgan boats for weeks in 2020 had all tested negative for COVID-19 before being transferred to the vessels, a court heard on Wednesday.

Authorities have previously argued that the country’s ports were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, citing a state of public health emergency declared around that time. 

A total of 425 migrants were detained offshore aboard four different boats in late spring 2020, with the detainees only brought to shore after unrest broke out aboard one of the vessels.

A group of 32 of those detainees are suing the government in court, claiming that their detention at sea breached their human rights. 

Captain Morgan general manager Kevin Zammit Briffa said that the migrants were first tested for COVID-19 and then taken on board the company’s boats after they resulted negative. 

Migrants were given face masks, gloves, sanitiser and protective clothing on board.

“Were there any quarantine measures?” asked applicants’ lawyer Cedric Mifsud. 

“No,” came the reply, prompting presiding Judge Toni Abela to question further whether there had been any contingency plans in case the need to quarantine arose, given that the migrants came into contact with the other persons who visited the boats.

Given that the migrants had been tested beforehand, instructions were to contact the ship chandler who was handling the provision of supplies, including medical supplies and services. 

How did Captain Morgan get involved? 

Zammit Briffa told the court that the company had gotten involved in the service provision after he received a call from company director Edward Zammit Tabona, telling him that they were to make boats available to the government.

But the manager could not say who had contacted Zammit Tabona to make the request. 

He told the court that he personally did not receive any communication from health authorities, with instructions relayed to him by company directors. 

“Who had contact with government?” asked Cedric Mifsud, representing the plaintiffs.

“The directors, I imagine,” he replied.

It was the directors, he said, who had told him to inform the captains to sail inland and bring the migrants to shore. The manager said that it was the first time that Captain Morgan – which traditionally offers tourist trips and cruises - had provided such a service. 

A contract with the government

The agreement was formalised through a contract with government.  

That contract bound the company to provide the vessels, equip them to accommodate the migrants and provide the crew to man them. It required the vessels to remain at a set distance away from Malta’s coast. 

The boats had to be repurposed to serve their new function, the witness explained, and their licence changed from that of ‘passenger boats’ to ‘work boats’, allowing them to sail beyond three miles from Malta’s shore. 

The three vessels, namely Bahhari, Atlantis and Europa II, were also fitted with toilets and showers, said the witness. There were five or six toilets on the Atlantis, six on Europa II and four or five on board the Bahhari.

Supplies and crews

Supplies ranging from food, cigarettes, sweets, blankets, medicines, doctors and nurses, blankets and phone calls, as well as other supplies for personal hygiene, were provided by a ship chandler.

Zammit Briffa said that requests for supplies were sometimes made directly to the ship chandler. He could not recall his name but pledged to look it up and inform the court. 

Crews aboard the vessels worked in shifts, to ensure a 24/7 watch. Crews were mainly in the wheel room but used the same beds and toilets as the migrants onboard, he said. 

Security was also in the hands of the ship chandler, while the ship captain were in charge of the vessels. 

A list of all the captains involved in the operation that lasted between April 30 and June 6, 2020, is to be produced in court. 

The case continues in March.

Lawyers Cedric Mifsud, Neil Falzon, Katrine Camilleri and Mireille Boffa are assisting the applicants.State Advocate Chris Soler is assisting the Prime Minister and the Home Affairs Minister as respondents. 

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us