The Home Affairs Ministry has replied to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for details surrounding the agreement the government reached with Captain Morgan Cruises to host migrants on vessels outside Maltese territorial waters by saying no Public Authority held such documentation.
“We regret to inform you that your request cannot be met because the document requested is not held by the Public Authority and the undersigned has no grounds for believing that the document is held by, or connected more closely with the functions, of another public authority,” the reply stated.
During the coronavirus lockdown in May, the government had reached an agreement with Captain Morgan Cruises to host over 400 migrants onboard vessels usually used to ferry tourists on day trips around the Maltese Islands.
The vessels are owned by the Zammit Tabonas of Fortina Group, who are donors to the Labour Party in government.
The arrangement the government reached with Captain Morgan Cruises and other suppliers of ancillary services cost taxpayers €1.7 million. There is nothing to show for it except a press release issued in July by the government. Answers to parliamentary questions were also not accompanied by any documents tabled.
A legal expert consulted by The Shift and who looked into the FOI reply said that unless the agreement between the government and the owners of Captain Morgan Cruises was verbal, any written or recorded information relating to this agreement qualifies as “document” in the eyes of the law.
This raises the question of how the government could have paid suppliers €1.7 million in the absence of invoices: “The fundamental issue here is an allergy to transparency.”
The lawyer stressed that even emails or text messages related to the deal constitute a “document” according to the FOI Act, which defines “document” broadly as something on which information is recorded including electronic data, images, scale models and other visual representations, and even audio or video recordings.
The non-reply comes at a time when the Prime Minister is once again considering hosting asylum seekers aboard tourist cruise ships as the number of cases of coronavirus on the islands surges because of mass events held in recent weeks.
The FOI request was sent on 15 May to the Principal Permanent Secretary at the Office of the Prime Minister and to the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Following weeks of silence, the OPM forwarded The Shift’s request to the Home Affairs Ministry.
The Shift’s questions did not only focus on the deal reached with Captain Morgan Cruises but also addressed issues related to the number of security personnel onboard the ship and their cost and the company supplying them as well as how it was selected. The same questions were asked about the company selected to supply food onboard the vessels.
In July, the government did make certain figures public through a DOI press release but failed to provide any form of documentation.
The same press release had stated that the whole operation cost some €1.7 million. This included the lease of the vessels which cost €363,440 and supply costs which amounted to €212,646. Another €87,741 was spent to deliver supplies and there was an expenditure of €10,908 on disembarkation procedures.
What the government press release fails to mention is the name of the companies contracted for this operation. Companies related to security, provision of supplies and transportation, for instance, are not named.
When replying to parliamentary questions, Prime Minister Robert Abela was evasive about whether the crew onboard the Captain Morgan vessels were being paid by the government and how much. This was one of the issues raised by The Shift in the FOI request.
Abela had referred to another parliamentary question in which Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri simply stated that the crew fell under the responsibility of Captain Morgan Cruises, ignoring the fact that the crew included a large number of security personnel.
The Prime Minister’s decision to host migrants onboard vessels has been harshly criticised by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and the International Organisation for Migration. They had called on Abela to end the use of private vessels to push away asylum seekers, although the government is once again considering this option.
Refugee Commissioner Roberta Buhagiar, a former employee of UNHCR, has remained silent throughout the controversy.