“Over the years the AFM saved thousands of lives,” Minister Byron Camilleri replied to concerns raised that delays in responding to requests for assistance had cost the life of a four-year-old Syrian girl.
That the AFM saved many lives is not in doubt. It’s also true that conducting rescue missions and providing migrants assistance at sea is difficult and dangerous. The dedication and courage shown by the officers involved in such missions should be acknowledged and commended.
Yet, the fact that the Armed Forces of Malta saved many lives in the past will hardly fend off criticism that AFM delays may have cost the loss of an innocent life.
Minister Camilleri ought to be defending the AFM. What he produces is not a defence, but an excuse. Even worse, the minister resorts to mounting an assault on journalists. That’s hardly going to convince international organisations or NGOs that our armed forces did everything possible to save the child.
“It would be good to follow such allegations when they are made and check whether they are actually true or not, as on occasion journalists only follow the story up to the allegation,” the minister accused. He charged journalists with “attacking” the AFM and just reporting “what the NGOs said”.
The journalists had no choice. When they contacted his ministry and asked specific questions about whether a rescue mission had been mounted, his ministry didn’t even bother to reply.
Italian activist Nawal Soufia claimed she contacted the Maltese authorities on 3 September to alert them about the migrant boat, as soon as she found out it was in Malta’s Search and Rescue zone. She claimed that Malta’s Rescue and Coordination Centre informed her they would help.
For days nothing happened.
The AFM maintain it had only been contacted on 6 September, when it started to coordinate rescue attempts. By then it was too late. The four-year-old was to die, allegedly of thirst.
The two versions of the events don’t match. Only one is correct. What’s certain is that the end result is a young girl’s death, one that was clearly preventable. The conflicting information casts a dark shadow on our armed forces. The minister’s failure to answer questions raised even more doubt. His banal and insensitive comments don’t help the AFM’s cause – they only make it worse.
What is uncontested is that allegations levelled against our Armed forces are serious. They are being accused of wilful delay that caused the girl’s death.
The only reasonable reaction would be to appoint an independent international inquiry given free and full access to all documentation, recordings, geo-locations and telephone records to establish the facts once and for all.
Doesn’t a young girl dying of thirst move the minister? Does he not dwell on that death and worry that more preventable deaths will follow? Does he have no interest whatsoever in finding out whether anything more could have been done to avoid this tragedy?
Byron Camilleri’s coldness gives us some indication of what his answers to those questions might be. Silvio Schembri’s dismissive comments that the girl’s death was simply “a failure of European immigration policies” only makes matters worse. It suggests that the Maltese government is not really interested in learning the facts of this sad case.
Silvio Schembri is not the home affairs minister. He’s not responsible for the country’s armed forces. No inquiry has been held. The facts of the tragedy have not even been established.
So how does Silvio Schembri know? What makes him so sure? Schembri is developing quite a record for embarrassing his country.
Last time around he threatened “foreign workers” who lost their job because of COVID that they would be deported, because, in his words, “charity begins at home”. The sheer stupidity and merciless cruelty of his threats elicited a massive backlash. Schembri was forced to issue a half-hearted apology to the effect that his “choice of words was unfortunate”. But it was Schembri’s initial response that betrayed, if not his true intentions, at least his mentality. In his latest comments about the girl’s death, he complained that the EU should “display the same sense of solidarity with Malta over irregular migration as it did with Ukraine following Russia’s invasion”.
Schembri shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a microphone.
Things must be pretty rotten when not even the tragic death of four-year-old Loujin Ahmed Nasif moves our government to act. But it’s no surprise. The same Minister Camilleri stubbornly refused to listen to multiple and repeated concerns about Alex Dalli’s running of the Corradino Correctional Facility. Only after several lives were unnecessarily lost was the minister forced to move Dalli out of the prison.
Again, the minister procrastinates in the face of real risk to more lives. Malta needs to act fast – for two reasons.
Firstly, if the allegations levelled against the AFM are unfounded, our armed forces deserve a robust confirmation that their version of events is correct. The nation needs reassurance that those serious and disturbing accusations are untrue.
If the government and the AFM know that the armed forces responded in a timely and appropriate manner, they have every interest in allowing an open, transparent process overseen by external observers to ascertain the truth.
The AFM has a vested interest in demonstrating to everybody, including its international partners, that they did everything possible to save that girl’s life.
The nation needs to know that our armed forces not only acted within the letter of the law and fulfilled their legal obligations, but that they also acted morally and compassionately.
Secondly, if things could and should have been done better, the armed forces need to learn how they could perform better and save more lives. No other child should suffer Loujin’s fate and it is in everybody’s interest that lessons are learned.
Sadly, the chances of an independent inquiry are slim indeed – especially since Minister Byron Camilleri “sincerely believes that the best way to save lives is to collaborate with the Libyan coastguard”.