EU Should Press Italy to Halt Illegal Forced Returns to Libya
September 21, 2009
The reality is that Italy is sending people back to abuse. Migrants who had been detained in Libya consistently spoke of brutal treatment and overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
Bill Frelick, Refugee Policy Director at Human Rights Watch
(Rome) - Italy intercepts African boat migrants and asylum seekers, fails to screen them for refugee status or other vulnerabilities, and forcibly returns them to Libya, where many are detained in inhuman and degrading conditions and abused, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today.

The 92-page report, "Pushed Back, Pushed Around: Italy's Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya's Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers," examines the treatment of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Libya through the eyes of those who have managed to leave and are now in Italy and Malta. It also documents Italy's practice of interdicting boats full of migrants on the high seas and pushing them back to Libya without the required screening.

"The reality is that Italy is sending people back to abuse," said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "Migrants who had been detained in Libya consistently spoke of brutal treatment and overcrowded and unsanitary conditions."

Italian patrol boats tow migrant boats from international waters without determining whether some might be refugees, sick or injured, pregnant women, unaccompanied children, or victims of trafficking or other forms of violence against women. The Italians force the boat migrants onto Libyan vessels or take the migrants directly back to Libya, where the authorities immediately detain them. Some of the operations are coordinated by Frontex, the European Union's external borders migration-control agency.

The policy is an open violation of Italy's legal obligation not to commit refoulement - the forced return of people to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened or where they would face a risk of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment.

"Pushed Back, Pushed Around" is based on interviews with 91 migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Italy and Malta, conducted mostly in May 2009, and one telephone interview with a migrant detainee in Libya. Human Rights Watch visited Libya in April and met with government officials, but the Libyan authorities would not permit the organization to interview migrants privately. The authorities also did not allow Human Rights Watch to visit any of the many migrant detention centers in Libya, despite repeated requests.

"Italy flouts its legal obligations by summarily returning boat migrants to Libya," said Frelick. "The EU should demand that Italy comply with its obligations by halting these returns to Libya. Other EU member states should refuse to participate in Frontex operations that result in the return of migrants to abuse."

"Daniel," a 26-year-old Eritrean interviewed in Sicily, told Human Rights Watch what happened after Maltese authorities interdicted the boat he was on and towed it to a Libyan vessel, which brought his group back to Libya (to read Daniel's complete account, please visit: http://www.hrw.org/en/node/85530 ):

"We were really tired and dehydrated when we arrived in Libya. I thought, ‘If they beat me, I won't feel a thing.' When we arrived, there were no doctors, nothing to help, just military police. They started punching us. They said, ‘You think you want to go to Italy.' They were mocking us. We were thirsty, and they were hitting us with sticks and kicking us. For about one hour they beat everyone who was on the boat."

They were taken to Misrata prison in a crowded, airless truck and beaten again when they arrived:

"We were treated badly at Misrata. We were Eritreans, Ethiopians, Sudanese, and a few Somalis. The rooms were not clean. We were only given a half-hour a day to take air outside, and the only reason they let us out at all was to count us. We sat in the sun. Anyone who spoke would be hit. I was beaten with a black plastic hose."

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees now has access to Misrata, and Libyan organizations provide humanitarian services there. But there is no formal agreement, and thus no guaranteed access. Furthermore, Libya has no asylum law or procedures. The authorities make no distinction among refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants.

"There are no refugees in Libya," Brigadier General Mohamed Bashir Al Shabbani, director of the Office of Immigration at the General People's Committee for Public Security, told Human Rights Watch. "They are people who sneak into the country illegally and they cannot be described as refugees." He said that anyone who enters the country without formal documents and permission is arrested.

Despite Libya's practices, the EU, like Italy, increasingly sees Libya as a valuable partner in migration control. The European Commission is currently negotiating a readmission agreement with Libya that would create a formal return mechanism, as well as a general Framework Agreement for enhanced ties. The European Commission vice-president, Jacques Barrot, has indicated a desire to visit Tripoli for talks on enhanced cooperation on asylum and migration.

"Pushed Back, Pushed Around" urges the Libyan government to improve the deplorable conditions of detention in Libya and to establish asylum procedures that conform to international refugee standards. It also calls on the Italian government, the European Union, and Frontex to ensure access to asylum, including for those interdicted on the high seas, and to refrain from returning non-Libyans to Libya until its treatment of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees fully meets international standards.

"The human rights clause in the upcoming EU-Libya Framework Agreement and any agreements flowing from it should include explicit reference to the rights of asylum seekers and migrants as a prerequisite for any cooperation on migration-control schemes," Frelick said.

Many of the worst abuses reported to Human Rights Watch occurred after failed attempts to leave Libya. One of the migrants, "Pastor Paul" (all names have been changed), a 32-year-old Nigerian, told Human Rights Watch how Libyan authorities brutally treated him when the Libyans stopped his boat shortly after it left Libya on October 20, 2008:

"We were in a wooden boat, and Libyans in a [motorized inflatable] Zodiac started shooting at us. They told us to return to shore. They kept shooting until they hit our engine. One person was shot and killed. I don't know the men who did the shooting, but they were civilians, not in uniforms. Then a Libyan navy boat came and got us and started beating us. They collected our money and cell phones. I think the Zodiac boat was working with the Libyan navy. The Libyan navy took us back in their big ship and sent us to Bin Gashir deportation camp. When we arrived there, they immediately started beating me and the others. They beat some of the boys until they could not walk."

Human Rights Watch does not have evidence to indicate how many migrants in Libya, or seeking to enter the European Union via Italy or Malta, would qualify as refugees. But Italy and Malta had asylum approval rates of 49 percent and 52.5 percent, respectively, for all nationalities in 2008. The Trapani district of Sicily, which includes Lampedusa, the entry point for most boat arrivals from Libya, had a 78 percent asylum approval rate from January through August 2008. But, by sending back to Libya everyone it intercepts at sea, without even trying to determine whether they are refugees, Italy is returning persons at risk of persecution.

"Many of the boat migrants do, in fact, come from countries with poor human rights records and, in some cases, high levels of generalized violence," said Frelick. "But beyond those who need protection, all migrants have human rights and should be treated with dignity."