Neville Gafa and Operation Sophia

Former OPM official Neville Gafa’ decided to challenge claims that through his visits in Libya he might have condemned thousands of people to torture, by mentioning an EU operation which has only recently been dismantled and replaced.

Formally known as European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EU NAVFOR), Operation Sophia was set up in 2015 as a military operation by the EU with the sole purpose of tackling the flow of migrants being smuggled from Northern Africa.

The operation was aimed at neutralising established migrant routes in the Mediterranean and came about as a reaction to the migrant shipwreck crises which was leaving thousands of people dead as they searched for a better life in Europe.

According to the mandate established in a Council decision in May of 2015, Operation Sophia was “to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers”.

As of January 2020, Operation Sophia was formally shut down as EU foreign ministers have recently agreed to focus the EU’s naval resources on a new mission which will focus on stopping the flow of weapons into Libya.

EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell explained that the operation will help the United Nations weapons embargo in war-torn Libya. Yet, similar to what had happened with Operation Sophia, countries like Italy and Austria were quick to react saying that there was a risk the new initiative would turn into a rescue mission for migrants trying to cross into Europe.

These same two countries had caused the suspension of Operation Sophia back in March 2019, when a populist Rome had decided to stop the deployment of ships intended to contribute to the mission.  Austria, on the other hand, had insisted the operation should never be restarted as it was increasing the flow of migrants from North Africa to Europe.

In an attempt to counter this criticism, Borrell said the EU would be suspending this new operation if the ships turned out to be encouraging desperate people to take the dangerous crossing to Europe, an outcome which Borrell referred to as ‘pull factor’.

It was this particular comment which Gafa’ decided to quote when replying to allegations made by former AD Chairman Arnold Cassola who insisted that the secret dealings between Malta and Libya breached fundamental human rights.

Cassola wrote to the International Criminal Court asking for an investigation into the actions of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Gafa’, his former OPM official after he said under oath that he was the person responsible for facilitating the secret deal preventing migrants from leaving Libya.

Gafa’ claimed that he helped avert a national crisis. Cassola said Gafa’s actions led to the violation of basic human rights and were in breach of international law.

Gafa’ decided to react by throwing Operation Sophia into the mix. “Have you ever heard of Operation Sophia?” he asked in a lengthy Facebook post after Cassola’s announcement.

Gafa’ drops Borrell’s “pull factor” concern about the new EU operation. “As a Maltese citizen, would you have accepted and felt comfortable if all those thousands of migrants would have reached Maltese shores?” he asks Cassola.

Then he dropped the nationalist line: “Malta l-ewwel u qabel kollox.”

While Gafa’ presented his secretive dealings in Libya as patriotic good deeds towards his country, there were a number of individuals who questioned his interpretation. This was highlighted by philosophy lecturer Jean Paul De Lucca. In a Facebook post, De Lucca was very blunt in stating that Gafa’s admission means that his intervention could have potentially “condemned thousands of lives to misery, manhandling, violence, torture and worse.”

Human rights NGO Aditus Foundation said that through Gafa’ actions, Malta has contributed in returning migrants to a ‘horrific and ghastly situation’. Aditus’ Neil Falzon said that asylum seekers who are returned back to Libya are either sold as slaves or sexually exploited.

Civil Society Network has called for a public inquiry to look into the secretive deal between Malta and Libya. The NGO referred to the deal as illegal and which would have led for several thousands of lives lost. They also referred to Gafa’s actions potentially breaching international refugee law all with “the blessing of ex-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat”.

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