(Agrigento, Sicily) - The forcible return of 227 migrants to Libya on May 6, 2009 by the Italian coast guard violated their right to seek asylum and put them at risk of inhuman and degrading treatment, Human Rights Watch said today.
The migrants, whose nationalities are not yet known, were rescued off the Italian coast and returned to Libya without any screening for refugee status. Italy has previously brought rescued migrants to Italian territory for an assessment of their protection needs, in keeping with its obligation under the UN Refugee Convention to provide asylum seekers with an opportunity to make their claim.
"Italy is acting as if it had done something positive by immediately sending these people back," said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. "In fact, they denied these people the right to seek asylum and put them in harm's way. We know how badly Libya has treated migrants previously returned there."
An Italian tanker responded to distress calls and rescued the migrants from three boats 35 miles (56 km) southeast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Two Italian coast guard boats and a tax and customs police boat immediately returned the migrants to Libya.
Press reports quoted the Italian interior minister as saying, "Until now, we had to get them, identify them, send them back to their countries of origin. For the first time in history, we were able to send illegal immigrants directly back to Libya." He called this a historic "turning point" in the campaign against illegal migration.
Human Rights Watch researchers are currently in Sicily, after visiting Malta and Libya, to assess the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. All undocumented migrants interviewed by Human Rights Watch who had been apprehended after earlier unsuccessfully trying to leave Libya testified to having been mistreated and subjected to indefinite detention, often in inhuman and degrading conditions, by Libyan authorities.
"I was arrested when I tried to leave Libya by boat," an asylum seeker who wanted to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch. "The steering wheel on our boat broke and the waves carried us back to land. Then the police caught us and beat me on the head and on the arms and then took us to prison."
Migrants consistently told Human Rights Watch researchers of overcrowded dirty conditions, mistreatment by guards and indefinite lengths of detention in Libyan migrant detention centers.
Libya is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have a domestic asylum law, although the Libyan minister of justice told Human Rights Watch in April 2009 that the authorities are finalizing a draft law. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operates in Libya without a formal agreement with the government. While it has recently been able to visit migrant detention centers and intervene to prevent deportations from Libya to countries of origin, the accounts of asylum seekers in Malta and Italy who passed through Libya indicate that Libya remains an unsafe country for migrants who are forcibly returned there.
The UN refugee agency estimates that 75 percent of the migrants who arrived in Italy in 2008 were asylum seekers, and 50 percent were granted some form of international protection. More than 90 percent of those migrants came through Libya. In addition to Italy's obligations under the Refugee Convention, Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits Italy from returning anyone to a country where there is a risk of inhuman or degrading treatment.
Under the Refugee Convention, Italy cannot return a person to face persecution, which includes deportations to third countries that would threaten the individual's life or freedom. An agreement to establish joint Italian-Libyan naval patrols to interdict boat migrants in Libyan waters is due to come into force on May 15, though the action on May 6 shows that Italy is already interdicting boat migrants and summarily returning them to Libya.
"Italy's interdiction and summary return is a draconian approach to dealing with the influx of migrants," Frelick said. "It gives boat people no access to refugee screening or protection."