It has become a predictable refrain. Whenever a member of our newsroom calls the Armed Forces of Malta to enquire about claims of a boat of migrants in distress, we receive the stock answer: “We have no information.”

It could be a justifiable answer were we not to suspect that the AFM is being economical with the truth. For several months now, humanitarian organisations have accused the Maltese authorities of ignoring calls for help, delaying tactics and even strategising to push migrants back to Libya.

In a tweet on January 2, NGO Alarm Phone, a hotline service for migrants in distress, said: “Tonight we have been alerted by 90 people who fled Libya towards Europe. We informed authorities about the emergency in the Maltese SAR but RCC Malta either doesn’t pick up or hangs up our calls immediately.”

Last November, Alarm Phone accused Malta of being “implicated” in the ongoing loss of life in the Mediterranean by “routinely” rejecting responsibility for boats even in its own search and rescue zone.

Like other reputable news organisations, Times of Malta does its utmost to verify such claims but it is often difficult to establish the facts when the incident allegedly happens in the open seas, miles away from the media gaze.

Yet, there have been so many times when the AFM’s standard “we have no information” response is followed up by reports that the rescued migrants were picked up by the Italian coastguard or even a one-line statement from the Maltese army saying they had picked them up.

The communication breakdown with the media appears to be a deliberate strategy to give the impression the issue does not exist.

Many would think such a strategy is justified when the authorities are torn between the COVID-19 crisis and EU states’ continuous reluctance to help find a workable strategy. But when this tactic is putting dozens of lives at risk, while prolonging the suffering of the asylum seekers on board, then the approach becomes nothing more than callous.

Let’s put some things into perspective. Malta has been on the frontline of the migration issue simply because of geographical reasons, the same way Greece is facing pressure from the east, Spain from the south-west.

While a number of those landing on our shores have a right to asylum, others do not have a legitimate claim for protection.

For about 15 years, EU states have failed to hammer out a workable strategy to solve the problem of human smuggling, give protection to refugees and reduce tragedies at sea. The 2015 migrant tragedies had mobilised the EU to take action, among which was to provide support to humanitarian organisations.

Just two years later, European states shifted strategy and started paying the Libyan government to return migrants to Libya. And, soon after, some states disgracefully embarked on a strategy that involved the near-criminalisation of migrant rescue charities and shuttered their ports.

We need to ask ourselves whether we feel comfortable with the fact that many of those being sent back to Libya are being caged in overcrowded hangars with barely any access to food or sanitation facilities. Libya still cannot provide a safe port and its rescue service remains shambolic.

As much as we don’t like the state of affairs, and as much as the pandemic has forced us to rethink our priorities, it should not give us a carte blanche to ignore human rights and, worse, risk putting anyone’s life in jeopardy.

The pandemic does not, either, allow us the freedom to promote unacceptable discourse and resort to cheap populist statements that “Malta is full up”. 

Malta and the rest of the EU states cannot remain guilty of dereliction of duty by refusing to save lives at sea. Pretending the crisis does not exist will not make it go away.

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