Classified OLAF report alleges cover-ups, pushbacks of asylum seekers from Malta

12 dead and a cover up: secret OLAF report uncovers inaction that led to migrant deaths

 

A classified internal audit of Frontex by the EU’s anti-fraud agency OLAF has alleged a cover-up of illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers from Malta’s search and rescue zone to Libya.

While allegations concerning Greece comprise the lion’s share of an investigation conducted by OLAF into Frontex’s actions, it includes a serious incident report about four migrant boats carrying some 250 passengers spotted in Malta’s search and rescue zone between 10 and 12 April 2020.

The incident took place when Malta had closed its ports to irregular migrants and when the Maltese government engaged private fishing vessels to conduct pushbacks, coordinated by notorious government official Neville Gafa under the instructions of the Office of the Prime Minister, of migrants to Libya during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 120-plus page report concludes that it was likely that one boat was “probably towed” to Italy by Maltese authorities, while another was pushed back to Libya by a fishing vessel registered in Libya but based in Malta. When it arrived in Tripoli, it was carrying five dead irregular migrants.

According to OLAF investigation into Frontex, “The Maltese Authorities did not cooperate with Frontex in the search and rescue operations, nor provided Frontex with information about the exact locations of the boats following the detection.”

A WhatsApp message from a Frontex employee at the time, whose name was redacted, is quoted in the report saying, “The boat that docked in Italy had new water bottles from Malta on board, so Malta probably towed the boat to Italy.

“In particular, (name redacted) stressed the lack of cooperation by the Maltese Authorities, refusing to provide Frontex with the coordinates of the migrants’ boats.

“I wonder at what political level the pressure was practiced in Malta because that is irresponsible conduct.”

The incriminating report found the incident had also been intentionally wrongly classified so as to circumvent a full investigation into the alleged violation.

It also cites a redacted internal Frontex email that requested a Serious Incident Report into the action, which was rebuffed by Frontex superiors: (Name redacted) wrote an e-mail to (Name redacted) and to (Name redacted) stressing the need to launch a Serious Incident Report and asking guidance from (Name redacted) about the categorization: “(…) regarding the situation of migrant boats being monitored by Frontex in the past days and the issues reported earlier in respect to Malta, we consider the need to initiate a SIR.”

Frontex officials, according to the report, allowed and later covered up an illegal pushback by the AFM, in which 12 people ended up losing their lives.

In this case, according to the report, made available recently through a freedom of information request, Maltese authorities spotted four refugee boats en route from Libya. According to investigations carried out by OLAF, the boats were overcrowded, carrying in all some 250 irregular migrants, and none were wearing life jackets.

But instead of rescuing the refugees, nothing happened for days while under observation by Frontex. Private fishing boats were then deployed by the Maltese government to push the migrants back to Libya, where refugees are routinely tortured in detention camps.

The boats arrived in Tripoli with five corpses on board, and seven others had drowned earlier. Frontex officials wanted to report the illegal pushback, according to the report, but their superiors refused.

Up to last week, the classified document has been available only to Members of the European Parliament under strict conditions.

German freedom of information specialists Frag Den Staat, Lighthouse Reports and Der Spiegel, to whom the report was leaked, have now published the document in full, citing reasons of public interest.

MEPs refuse to approve Frontex’s 2020 budget over toxic report

On Tuesday MEPs refused to approve Frontex’s 2020 accounts over the allegations of serious misconduct, where they voted against the discharge with a 345 to 284 vote margin.

They had already postponed the vote last May and instead demanded to view the report in full.  The report from the bloc’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, was completed in February after a year-long investigation but it had been kept confidential.

It was leaked in full, yet heavily redacted last week. It detailed how Frontex managers committed “serious misconduct and other irregularities” by covering up pushbacks – the illegal practice of forcing migrants back seeking EU shores back to their point of departure, in this case to Libya.

Members of the EP’s Budgetary Control Committee earlier this month voted against clearing the 2020 Frontex budget citing the “magnitude of the committed serious misconduct” and possible structural problems under the previous executive director of the agency.

Former Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri resigned last April over the report.

The Greens/EFA group welcomed Tuesday’s vote, underscoring how “Frontex is the most EU-funded agency” and accused the European Commission in a petition of “turning a blind eye” to the human rights abuses carried out at the EU’s borders.

They cite Malta, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania,  Poland, Slovenia and Spain as member states in which “threats, physical violence, assault and abuse during detention or transportation” have been observed.

“I welcome that the OLAF report is finally public, as it should have been from the very beginning,” said Cornelia Ernst, an MEP from the European Parliament’s S&D parliamentary grouping.

“It again proves black on white what we have been saying for many years: Frontex is systematically involved in human rights violations and their coverup at the EU’s external borders.”

Malta’s April 2020 Covid pushbacks

The Malta aspect of the story began in April 2020 when the Maltese government deployed a privately owned fishing trawler, Dar Al Salam 1, captained by Carmelo Grech, to intercept an overcrowded boat of irregular migrants in distress while en route from Libya to Malta. It took on 51 migrants.

The rubber dinghy was in international waters at the time but was also allegedly within reach of the Armed Forces of Malta, which should have intervened. Instead, the trawler returned to Tripoli with the would-be asylum seekers, after which they were interred in Libyan detention camps.

The Dar Al Salam 1 had been discreetly deployed by the Maltese authorities to intercept the irregular migrant boat.

According to the OLAF investigation, a Frontex reconnaissance aircraft had spotted four overcrowded inflatable boats travelling from Libya to Malta.  The Maltese authorities, according to the investigation, did not cooperate with Frontex in the rescue operations, and did not even share the dinghies’ exact coordinates.

Two of those trawlers eventually docked in Sicily instead of Malta, while the third brought the irregular migrants back to Libya.

A WhatsApp message from a Frontex employee at the time, whose name was redacted, is quoted in the report saying, “The boat that docked in Italy had new water bottles from Malta on board, so Malta probably towed the boat to Italy.

“In particular, (name redacted) stressed the lack of cooperation by the Maltese Authorities, refusing to provide to FRONTEX the coordinates of the migrants’ boats.

“I wonder at what political level the pressure was practiced in Malta because that is irresponsible conduct.”

It is also reported that 51 irregular migrants were transported back to Tripoli. According to Frontex, there were also five corpses on board, and seven others had drowned earlier.

But not only are Frontex and the Maltese authorities accused of inaction but there was also a clear attempt at a cover-up on the part of the agency.

According to internal Frontex correspondence reported in the investigation, one employee asks another by email how Frontex’s observations ought to be categorised as a Category 2 incident of political or public interest, or as a Category 4 incident, which relates to possible violations of fundamental human rights/international protection.

The main consideration was that a Category 4 would spark an investigation by Frontex fundamental rights officers into the incident, who would ascertain whether Frontex had respected the fundamental rights of the people concerned.

At first, Frontex officials were instructed to put the incident down to a Category 2, which would have resulted in an investigation without a fundamental rights officer.

The Frontex Situation Centre, which monitors and collects information about all such incidents, requested a re-categorisation to a more serious Category 4 incident but the request was repeatedly fobbed off.

Boat was in distress in Libya’s SAR, not Malta’s, government claimed

A statement from the Maltese government at the time defended its actions, or, rather, inaction: “The boat in question had already been in distress for a number of days while in Libya’s Search and Rescue Area, not in Malta’s SAR. The European Union was aware of the boat as it was located in Libya’s Search and Rescue Area. The EU flew its aircraft over the area but did not send any vessels to pick up the migrants,” a Department of Information statement at the time claimed.

It added that the Malta Rescue and Coordination Centre immediately followed the established coordination procedures once the boat was in Malta’s SAR/SRR, the government insisted and communicated the necessary information through what is known as NAVTEX.

“The Armed Forces of Malta also made a number of flights to pinpoint where this boat was located, as soon as it was reported to be in Malta’s SAR. During one of these flights, the boat’s exact location was established and the AFM called nearby vessels to assist.”

During this time, the government said the Armed Forces of Malta was also coordinating four other similar cases on its own.

The migrants who were returned to Libya by the trawler, the government said, “were assisted by a commercial vessel, which was dispatched to the location of the boat for assistance. Later, a Libyan fishing vessel took the migrants on board” while the Armed Forces of Malta was also coordinating four other similar cases “on its own”.

Amnesty International, however, had found in a report on what transpired on the high seas in April 2020 that some of the actions taken by the Maltese authorities may have involved criminal acts having been being committed, which resulted in avoidable deaths, prolonged arbitrary detention and illegal returns to war-torn Libya.

                           
                           
                               
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carlos
1 month ago

An irresponsible corrupt government who is delighted with the arrival of the corrupt oligarcs to launder the illicit gains. AND WHAT ABOUT THE EU whom we thought would save us from corruption?

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