Italy and Libya Join Forces to Prevent Boat Migrants From Leaving or Seeking Asylum
(Washington, DC) - Libyan leader Mu`ammar al-Gaddafi will visit Italy on June 10, 2009 to celebrate the ratification of an Italy-Libya Friendship Treaty that has already resulted in joint naval patrols that run roughshod over refugee and migrant rights, Human Rights Watch said today.
"Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Mu`ammar al-Gaddafi are building their friendship agreement at the expense of people from other countries whom both regard as expendable," said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. "It looks less like friendship and more like a dirty deal to enable Italy to dump migrants and asylum seekers on Libya and evade its obligations."
Berlusconi promised to provide US$200 million a year over the next 25 years through investments in infrastructure projects in Libya. Italy provided three patrol boats to Libya on May 14, and has promised three more. Italy has also said that it will help construct a radar system to monitor Libya's desert borders, using the Italian security company, Finmeccanica.
Cosimo D'Arrigo, the commander of Italy's Finance Guard, said that the patrol boats would be "used in joint patrols in Libyan territorial water and international waters in conjunction with Italian naval operations," according to the ANSA news agency. So far, the joint patrols have succeeded in curtailing the flow of boat migrants to Italy.
Libya is not a party to the United Nations Refugee Convention and has no asylum system. It has a dismal record of abuse and mistreatment of migrants caught trying to flee the country by boat, and cannot seriously be regarded as a partner in any scheme that claims to protect refugees, Human Rights Watch said.
Since Italy established its new interdiction and summary return policy on May 6, about 500 migrants and asylum seekers have been interdicted by Italian security forces and their boats towed to Libya. The migrants are returned without even a cursory screening to determine whether any need protection or are particularly vulnerable, such as sick or injured persons, pregnant women, unaccompanied children, or victims of trafficking.
Human Rights Watch recently concluded visits to Libya, Malta, and Italy (including Sicily and Lampedusa) to assess the situation of migrants and asylum seekers in the region. All undocumented migrants interviewed by Human Rights Watch who had been apprehended after earlier trying unsuccessfully to leave Libya reported having been mistreated and subjected to indefinite detention, often in inhuman and degrading conditions, by Libyan authorities.
Italy has previously brought rescued migrants to Italian territory for an assessment of their protection needs, in keeping with its obligation under the Refugee Convention to provide asylum seekers with an opportunity to make their claim. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed "deep concern" regarding the fate of the interdicted migrants on May 7, saying that they were returned to Libya "without proper assessment of their possible protection needs."
"Tomas," a 24-year-old Eritrean man interviewed in Rome on May 20, gave Human Rights Watch an account of abuse, beatings, a long journey in a packed and airless truck, and ill-treatment in prison:
"The [Libyan] navy forces caught us and took us to ... a place called Jawazat. It was an immigration prison. ... We were in the same room with 160 others - all in one room. ... We were only allowed to use the toilet once a day. Many people had skin problems. There was no soap. They gave us water in a jar to drink. Many of us had stomach problems. We had to beg the guards to take sick people to the toilet. ...
After two months, they put us with another group of Eritreans - 150 people in all. They put us in a big truck. It was packed with people. There wasn't room for anyone to sit down. We all remained standing. ... We started at 6 a.m., and traveled all day and all the next night. ...
When they let us out of the truck, we were in Kufra prison. We spent one week there. They fed us food only once a day. Only rice. Ramadan was over. I had already experienced two months of hunger in prison. We were now 800 prisoners crowded in different rooms. We slept on pieces of cardboard. ... It was dirty. ..."
Tomas said Kufra is Libya's deportation site and that the guards have an agreement with smugglers, who press the migrants to pay hundreds of dollars to return them to Tripoli. He said he failed in two further attempts to flee Libya, and suffered lasting damage from beatings:
"I was beaten by wood and metal sticks by three guards. They beat me for more than 10 minutes. They called me ‘nigger' as they beat me. When I fell to the ground, they kicked me. They beat me with a metal stick on my head. I have scars and pain inside my head. I still have pains in my shoulder. The metal sticks were thin, but they did not bend."
Tomas succeeded in fleeing to Italy on his fourth attempt, where he was granted humanitarian status. The full transcript of his account is available at: http://www.hrw.org/node/83699
The Italian minister of interior, Roberto Maroni, declares that Libya is working "to keep illegal migrants from leaving." Human Rights Watch said that the accounts of migrants who are arrested for trying to leave Libya raise serious questions about whether its actions to prevent departures, encouraged and financed by Italy, violate the right of anyone to leave any country (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 12) and the right of everyone to seek asylum (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 14). Italy's summary return of boat people to Libya also indicates that it may be reneging on its own obligations under international law not to return people to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, article 33) or where they would face inhuman and degrading treatment (article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights). Accounts from migrants about brutal treatment and the lack of asylum law and procedures in Libya raise grave concerns about the safety of the migrants that Italy returns to Libyan shores.