Further evidence of Malta’s strategy to push migrants back to the conflict zone of Libya has been revealed by a woman who survived a Mediterranean crossing in which 12 people died.
A series of voice messages obtained by reporters have provided confirmation of the Maltese government’s strategy to use private vessels, acting at the behest of its armed forces, to intercept migrant crossings and return refugees to Libyan detention centers.
The woman said that the boat on which she was attempting to reach Europe had been intercepted by a ship enlisted by 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 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.
About 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 east of Tripoli, she said.
“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 men, almost unconscious from thirst and hunger, let themselves slide down from the dinghy into the water to drown before a trawler under a Maltese flag, the Dar Al Salam 1, reached them on April 14, she said.
“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 Italian daily Avvenire revealed that at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 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 coast guard. The Dar Al Salam 1 reportedly sails with two other vessels, the Salve Regina and the Tremar, all allegedly hired by Malta.
The woman’s account was of three boats.
Two migrants died during the interception, she said, adding 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,” she said.
After 48 hours, the migrants’ worst fears were confirmed when the ship arrived in Tripoli. Passengers were moved to the Tariq al-Sikka detention center — infamous for torture and abuse — where they remain.
Following last month’s media coverage, prosecutors in Malta launched an investigation into the allegations.
Neville Gafa, a former Maltese official, told magistrates on April 30 that 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 requests for comment.
However, in a statement released on April 15, authorities in Valletta confirmed that it “coordinated the rescue of an immigrant boat assisted by a commercial vessel.”
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