A series of voice messages obtained by the Guardian have provided confirmation of the Maltese government’s strategy to use private vessels, acting at the behest of its armed forces, in order to intercept migrant crossings and return refugees to Libyan detention centers.
The woman said the boat on which she was attempting to reach Europe had been intercepted by a ship enlisted by the Maltese authorities, which took those aboard back to Tripoli.
Last month, investigative journalists working for several international media sources exposed the existence of a secret pact between La Valletta and the owners of at least three trawlers.
The woman’s account matches that of other survivors who have spoken to Alarm Phone, a hotline service for migrants in distress at sea, which first raised the case.
Her boat left the coast of Libya on the night of April 9, she said. Around 63 people, including a six-week-old baby and a two-year-old girl — most of them from sub-Saharan Africa — were loaded into a dinghy by traffickers at Garabulli, approximately 50km (31 miles) east of Tripoli.
A first ship passed tantalizingly close to them. “The boat was called Medkon Lines,” said the woman, who showed a photograph of the vessel. “We tried to stop it to rescue us. Three men jumped in the water to reach it, but in one minute they disappeared in the water.
“After five days at sea, a Maltese airplane spotted us,” said the woman, whose identity cannot be revealed for her security. “We thought the plane would call the rescuers, but nobody came. We were feeling so tired and we didn’t even have water or food.”
Four other men, almost unconscious from thirst and hunger, let themselves slide down from the dinghy into the water to drown, she said, before, on April 14, a trawler under a Maltese flag, the Dar Al Salam 1, reached them.
“The crew of the boat told us they were not rescuers … but said they work for Malta,” the woman said. “They said they were Egyptian and working at sea for Malta. They were looking at us like we were not human beings.”
Last month, investigations by The New York Times and the Italian daily newspaper Avvenire revealed that, with the onset of coronavirus, Malta had allegedly dispatched a small fleet to intercept and return migrants to Libya, citing a senior commander in the Libyan coast guard and a former Maltese official involved. One of the vessels was the Dar Al Salam 1 which oversees international operations for the Libyan coastguard.
The owner of the Dar Al Salam 1 is Captain Carmelo Grech. Asked for comment by the Guardian, Grech replied by sending an angry-face emoticon.
The Dar Al Salam 1 sails with two other vessels, the Salve Regina and the Tremar, all allegedly hired by Malta.
The woman’s account was of three boats. She said two migrants died during the interception, and that three others died en route to Libya.
“Once we were aboard the boat, we begged them to not bring us back to Libya. But then they placed us in the stern of the ship and locked themselves in the boat kitchen. They left us inside with four bottles of water. We knocked but they didn’t open. We started to cry and think that they had just lied to us.”
After 48 hours, the migrants’ worst fears were confirmed when the ship arrived in Tripoli. Passengers were moved to the detention center of Tariq al-Sikka — infamous for torture and abuse — where they remain.
“Maltese authorities’ refusal to rescue these persons amount to a serious breach of international human rights and maritime law,’’ said Giulia Tranchina, human rights lawyer at Wilson Solicitors in London. “The survivors taken back to Libya have been placed again in arbitrary detention in inhuman conditions in the main EU-funded ‘official detention center’ of Tariq al-Sikka, managed by the Libyan [Directorate for Illegal Migration] police, where male refugees are often tortured in underground cells for months.’’
Following April’s media coverage, prosecutors in Malta launched an investigation into the allegations. Neville Gafà, a former Maltese official, told magistrates on April 30 he was enlisted by the government to coordinate the pushback of migrants to Libya, following instructions from the prime minister’s office.
The Maltese government did not respond to Guardian requests for comment. However, in a statement released on April 15, authorities in La Valletta confirmed that it “coordinated the rescue of an immigrant boat assisted by a commercial vessel” and on May 1, answering reporters’ questions about the boats, Malta’s prime minister, Robert Abela, said, “Nothing stops a state from using private assets.”
A spokesperson for Alarm Phone said, “Twelve people have died while Malta and Europe were watching. We should never forget that these deaths are the direct result of Malta’s and Europe’s non-assistance policies, and their clear intention to let people die at sea. These deaths could and should have been prevented.’’
The survivors are all still in detention cells, including the toddler and baby, at Tripoli’s Tariq al-Sikka, where, according to lawyers and charities, they have no access to medical treatment, or sufficient food and water.
‘’We wanted to come to Europe because we have the right to live’’ says the woman. ‘’I have decided to talk because it is my right to talk, because our brothers died in the sea. It is my right to talk about what I saw.”