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Treating refugees as refuse

Berlusconi's deal with Gaddafi to use Libya as a dumping ground for migrants who arrive in Italy rides roughshod over their rights

Published in: The Guardian

With the visit of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to Rome this week, Italy and Libya are celebrating their recently ratified Friendship Treaty. But this pact, which has already resulted in joint naval patrols that run roughshod over refugee and migrant rights - as Tana de Zulueta commented - is hardly cause for celebration.

About 500 migrants have already been summarily returned to Libya since early May, and boat departures from Libya have been sharply curtailed. Today, the migrant detention centre and asylum reception centres on Italy's outpost island of Lampedusa are empty, a dramatic contrast to the way they looked in January, when 1,850 people were crammed in space designed for 800, with many sleeping on the floor. But asylum seekers don't simply disappear. Many will be denied the opportunity to seek asylum from war and persecution and almost all will be subjected to indefinite detention, poor conditions and perhaps abuse.

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi promised to provide $200m (£121m) a year over the next 25 years through investments in infrastructure projects in Libya. Italy provided three patrol boats to Libya on 14 May, 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.

In building their friendship agreement, Berlusconi and Gaddafi seem to be regarding migrants and asylum seekers from other countries as expendable. The deal enables Italy to dump migrants and asylum seekers on Libya and evade its obligations while Libya gets investment, bolstered security infrastructure and acceptance as Italy's friend and partner.

But can Libya be regarded as a partner when it comes to refugee protection? Libya has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have a domestic asylum law. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operates in Libya without formal agreement from the government. While it has recently been able to visit migrant detention centres and intervene to prevent deportations of migrants from Libya to their home countries, the accounts of asylum seekers in Malta and Italy who passed through Libya indicate that it remains unsafe for migrants forcibly returned there.

More than 50 migrants and asylum seekers in Malta and Italy whom I interviewed in May told me consistent stories of being held indefinitely in overcrowded, dirty conditions in Libyan detention centres, mistreatment by guards and collusion between smugglers and police. I was also in Libya in late April, where Human Rights Watch had been promised access to migrant detention centres during our 10-day visit. But we were never allowed to enter any of the centres, an indication the authorities have something to hide.

Italy, Greece, and Malta certainly have an unfair burden for examining asylum claims for Europe under the rules of the Dublin Convention, which generally make the country of first arrival the responsible party. The solution lies in amending the rules so that EU states will share the burden equitably. But pacts with countries outside the EU that have not made commitments to protect refugees, have no asylum procedures and have histories of inhuman and degrading treatment are not the solution.

Berlusconi justifies his new policy on legal grounds, contending: "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," which he describes as "those who put their feet down on our soil, in the sense also of entering into our territorial waters". On political grounds, he argues that Italy is not and should not be a multi-ethnic society. Both arguments are objectionable.

The 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Italy is a party, bars returning people "in any manner whatsoever" to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened. It doesn't specify where they are being returned from, but where they cannot legally be returned to. The idea that preventing their entry and forcibly returning them cancels the obligation to protect people from persecution stands the purpose of the Refugee Convention on its head.

Berlusconi also said: "On the boats people who have the right to asylum, there are virtually none. There are very exceptional cases only." But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. Last year, 75% of the migrants who arrived in Italy were asylum seekers, and 50% of them were granted some form of international protection. More than 90% of them came through Libya.

Berlusconi's declaration about a "multi-ethnic society", which has drawn condemnation from the Italian Catholic church, indicates a growing climate of intolerance in Italy.

By treating Libya as a human dumping ground, how can Italy and the EU not expect that Libya in turn will treat these people as refuse? Human rights are universal - they must be respected in all countries, on land and at sea.

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