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AWKWARD questions have been raised over the Maltese government’s involvement in the return of refugees to Libya last week on a ship that may have tried to hide its identity.
Four refugee boats attempted to cross the Mediterranean from Libya on April 9 or 10. Two of them made it to safety. One of them is believed to have capsized.
The refugees on the other were returned to the north African country on a fishing boat despite having been in Malta’s search-and-rescue zone since April 12.
Only 51 of the original 63 people survived the six-day ordeal. Five died on the fishing boat.
The fishing boat was photographed as it docked in Tripoli with the refugees on April 15. Its name and International Maritime Organisation (IMO) number appear to be missing in the pictures.
The “ghost ship,” as it has been called by journalists and refugee-rescue organisations, is strikingly similar to a Libyan-flagged vessel called the Mae Yemanja.
Maltese investigative journalist Manuel Delia identified the similarities on the ship-tracking website MarineTraffic last week.
According to Mr Delia, the ghost ship left Malta’s capital Valletta during the evening of April 14, switched off its tracker and headed towards the refugee boat’s position.
At 21 minutes past midnight on April 14, Malta sent out a message to all vessels in the area that “all ships transiting in the area [should] keep [a] sharp lookout [for the refugees] and assist if necessary.” It also stated that Malta could not provide a place of safety.
By the time the Mae Yemanja arrived on the scene the next day, seven migrants had jumped overboard. Some of them had attempted to swim towards a Portuguese container ship, the Ivan, a mile away.
According to an investigation by Alarm Phone, an activist network which runs a hotline for migrants in distress in the Mediterranean, Malta’s maritime authorities ordered the Ivan to “stay at the scene and monitor the boat in distress until rescue would arrive.”
But “due to high waves and the general adverse conditions at sea, the Ivan was unable to rescue the people in distress, and [was] also not ordered by Malta to do so.”
Mr Delia’s investigation found that the ship was previously registered in Malta and that court records from 2018 show the ship was previously owned and operated by Maltese businessman Charles Grech.
“In 2018 an appeals court confirmed a lower court’s decision to acquit him of smuggling charges after customs raids on the Mae Yemenja,” Mr Delia’s report says.
“The boat was still owned and piloted by Charles Grech in 2019 when in his own name and in the name of his company Gulf Fisheries Limited he sued the customs authorities claiming compensation for his costs after customs confiscated his cargo of imported cigarettes.”
Returning refugees or asylum-seekers to a country where they will face persecution is a breach of international refugee law.
It remains unclear why the Mae Yemanja removed its name and IMO number, why it turned off its tracker before the rescue, why it was in Malta in the first place, if it was ordered to pick up the refugees, why it returned them to a Libya and why five people died on board.
Why didn’t the Maltese authorities launch a rescue on April 12? Why didn’t they order the Ivan to pick up the refugees? Did they delay their rescue for the Mae Yemanja deliberately or until a boat bound for Libya arrived on the scene?
“Many unanswered questions indeed,” wrote the UN refugee agency the UNHCR’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean situation Vincent Cochetel on Twitter last Friday when he shared Mr Delia’s story.
“Meanwhile the survivors are either detained in an awful detention centre in Libya or missing in a war zone. This is what happens when refugees or migrants are sent back to Libya.”
Malta’s Prime Minister Robert Abela is currently under criminal investigation over the 12 deaths, as are several Maltese soldiers who were accused of sabotaging the refugees’ boat prior to their return to Libya, following complaints to police by the rights organisation Repubblika and other NGOs.
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