Prime Minister Robert Abela spoke fully expecting anyone to be surprised by insisting Malta is only obliged to coordinate a rescue in its waters, not necessarily to use state-owned assets to do so. Of course, that’s true. Anything that is available and nearest at hand should be turned around to save lives at sea.

But the government also has a responsibility to make the best effort possible to do its job – in this case coordinating rescue – in the best manner possible. By going for the lowest available resource, the government would still be neglecting its duty. The law states the government is to protect everyone’s health. If they engage florists to conduct heart surgery, reserving cardiologists for the sale of flowers, they would not be fulfilling their duty.

Now how about this Europa II from Captain Morgan serving as a combination of a salvage ship, an off-shore prison and a sea-bound hospital? Is she the best available resource to satisfy the government obligations?

Start with the job of saving lives. The Europa II is a step up from the Mae Yemenja. She has a toilet on board, she’s bigger, there’s space for mattresses on the ground. The Mae Yemenja was a step up from the migrants’ dinghy, the one provided by the traffickers in exchange for their life savings. And the dinghy is way, way better than the bottom of the ocean.

None of these vessels, including the Europa II, is anywhere near as suitable for rescue as one of the larger AFM patrol boats. Crews of the patrol boats are trained and experienced for just this sort of thing. The patrol boats are manned by brave men and women who have been belatedly glorified to high heavens by the government over the last four weeks but kept in store at the harbour like cardiologists selling flowers.

But we’ve now gone beyond rescue. We’ve gone beyond grasping at the first available resource to make sure people do not drown.

Now the government is holding in detention undocumented migrants and it’s doing so out at sea. The legal grounds for this are at best dubious. The law empowers the government to detain immigrants it does not accept into the country but the law specifically speaks of detention on land. Detention on the water is not something the law even contemplates.

Put that aside for a moment. Since we’re a civilised country there are expectations in our laws of minimum standard of decency in the conditions of our detention. There are some 60 rescued people on the Europa II. That’s apart from what is described as a security team and the ship’s crew.

How many of the crew or the “security detail” (whoever they might be) are trained for the detention of people in the care of the state? And what conditions are they ensuring for the ‘inmates’, for want of a better word to describe prisoners on the high seas? How many toilets are they sharing? How many showers? What food are they being given? How often is it being shipped out?

How is their medical condition being checked? Are there any doctors on board or visiting? Or even paramedics? Are the people on board even trained in first-aid? Have the ‘inmates’ been allowed to inform their family where in the world they are?

But she’s not just a prison, is she? She’s also a form of medical clearing house. People are being held 13 miles out at sea to make sure they’re well beyond the recommended 2 metre distance in case of Covid contagion: because that’s the excuse, remember, keeping COVID-19 away.

Would a doctor agree that the conditions in which this indefinite quarantine is being held compliant with basic standards of care? Would anyone who cares about basic standards of human decency?

These are not idle questions.

The Europa II was not built to carry and hold passengers 13 miles out. She was built and for years licensed to sail within 3 or 4 miles of the coast so that she can seek shelter quickly if the weather gets choppy. She may have been given some ad hoc certificate with the legal fiction that now it has become miraculously suitable for the open ocean but the physical reality of the boat does not change because Transport Malta might have proclaimed it so.

If the sea gets rough, life on that boat will turn from the hot hell it is now to something unimaginably dangerous.

The crew manning the Europa II do not know the ship well.  Her regular crew has been chucked out by the Captain Morgan operators because of the Covid slowdown. For this ‘mission’ Captain Morgan has recruited hard-nosed “chuckers-out” whose known security experience is dumping drunk and unruly customers (often vaguely brown) who touch up strippers in the wrong places in Paceville.

They may be the only people willing to do this insane job out at sea in an unsafe boat holding down desperate migrants with the indomitable sense of self-preservation that drove them to walk across the Sahara, survive slavery or worse in Libya and attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

But that does not make these bouncers the first people one should think of to ensure people in their care and assigned to their custody are treated with dignity in full respect of their human rights.

The safety equipment aboard the Europa II is designed for a rescue within 3 or 4 miles of a friendly coastline, not 13 miles out. And unconfirmed reports suggest the certificate of quality of that equipment – including life rafts – is expired. Perhaps Transport Malta can be half-arsed enough to clarify that, given that it remains the regulator with the function to protect the lives of passengers carried by vessels it licences.

And the responsibility to ensure that the Maltese flag does not become even less respected than it is now, thanks to the machinations of Joseph Muscat and his mates.

Incidentally, Transport Malta could also clarify if the insurance arrangements for the Europa II have been updated to take into account her sudden change of purpose. What happens if someone dies on board the Europa II, 13 miles out at sea? Something tells me Captain Morgan will need to find a way to ensure they do not carry that liability.

On this mission the only reassurance Prime Minister Robert Abela gave is that we’re not paying for it. He told us the EU is paying for it which, he assumes, must have been the only thing any of us were worried about: covering the cost of saving people at sea.

His concern was a bit more complicated than that. The cost of keeping the boat out at sea will soon become a multitude of times greater than the cost of bringing the passengers in and holding them in quarantine, even in luxury conditions in some closed-down hotel.

But since we’re not paying, we should not care.

Whoever pays, and it’s not a matter of money for heaven’s sake, this remains our country and that sea remains our responsibility. The migrants are in our care and if they are now being treated less than the law – forget common decency – expects of our state, the government is breaking the law no matter the fact that they got Captain Morgan to do it for them.

And if something worse than prolonged sea sickness was to happen to them while they’re in our care, Robert Abela can scratch a few more lines to add to the tally of 5 corpses, 7 lost souls and over 50 detainees in a Libyan torture chamber.