(Agrigento, Sicily) - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy described incorrectly Italy's international legal obligations as Italy summarily returned another 163 boat migrants back to Libya on May 10, Human Rights Watch said today.
This brought to more than 500 the number of migrants forcibly returned without refugee screening in the last five days, according Italian Interior Ministry figures. The prime minister appeared to deny Italy's obligations not to force persons to return to Libya if doing so would put them at risk of persecution.
Italian media quoted Berlusconi as saying: "Our idea is to take in only those citizens who are in a position to request political asylum and who we have to take in as stipulated by international agreements and treaties," referring to "those who put their feet down on our soil, in the sense also of entering into our territorial waters."
"Italy seems to be trying to rewrite international refugee law," said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. "Returning people to persecution - whether or not they first set foot on Italian territory - is against the rules."
Frelick has spent the past two weeks in Libya, Malta, and Sicily, conducting research on the problems migrants face in Libya and in Italy. "By sending out patrol boats and preventing would-be asylum seekers from landing on Italian soil, Italy does not absolve itself of its responsibilities," he said.