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African immigrants who attempt the dangerous boat journey across the Mediterranean to Italy face a double dose of hardship. Since May, if their vessels are intercepted by the Italian authorities, they have been summarily returned to Libya, where migrants typically suffer widespread mistreatment. "The reality is that Italy is sending people back to abuse," said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch.

Some may be refugees, sick or injured, pregnant, unaccompanied children, or victims of trafficking or other forms of violence against women. That doesn't concern Italian authorities, who tow migrant boats from international waters and force the passengers onto Libyan vessels or take them back to Libya, where the authorities immediately detain them. Italy's actions constitute a blatant violation of a longstanding international legal principle of nonrefoulement that prohibits 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.

This flouting of human rights by the two countries is documented in a new report from Human Rights Watch. The two countries, long at odds, signed a friendship pact in August 2008 that commits Italy to long-term investments worth US$5 billion in Libyan infrastructure. The pact also calls for "intensifying" cooperation in "fighting terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration." The interdiction and return of migrants appears to be the direct result.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy said, "There's hardly anyone on these boats who has the right to asylum, as the statistics show." He has also argued that nonrefoulement is inapplicable to vessels on the high seas, as opposed to international waters, where most of the Italy-bound migrants are intercepted. The Human Rights Watch report concludes that, in both cases, Berlusconi is in error.

The report is based on more than 90 interviews with migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, most in Malta and Italy, where migrants can speak freely to Human Rights Watch researchers, which they cannot do in Libya. Still, Libya's mistreatment of immigrants is well-documented.

Migrants who had been detained in Libya consistently told Human Rights Watch of having lived in fear there - of being robbed, beaten, and extorted not only by criminals on the streets, but also by the police. Even the children threw stones at them.

Daniel, a 26-year-old Eritrean, recounted his July 2005 encounter with Libyan authorities. After the engine failed on the migrant boat carrying him and some 260 others, they drifted for five days. A Maltese Coast Guard vessel appeared and towed their boat - but not to Malta. "We saw we were going in the wrong direction," Daniel told Human Rights Watch. "Everyone said, ‘Please, no.' We pleaded with the Maltese. The Maltese just waved their hands to say no." Once in the hands of Libyan authorities, he said, "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."

Libya has no asylum law or procedures. It has no formal mechanism for individuals seeking protection. The authorities make no distinction among refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants. "There are no refugees in Libya," Brigadier General Mohamed Bashir Al Shabbani, the director of the Office of Immigration at the General People's Committee for Public Security, told Human Rights Watch." He said, "They are people who sneak into the country illegally and they cannot be described as refugees." He added, "Anyone who enters the country without formal documents and permission is arrested."

Fact File

Since May 6, 2009, Italian coast guard and naval patrols have interdicted and forcibly returned boat migrants on the high seas without screening passengers to determine whether any needed protection.

Italy and Libya signed "The Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between the Italian Republic and Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya" on August 30, 2008.

Italy violates the international legal principle of nonrefoulement when it interdicts boats on the high seas and pushes them back to Libya with no screening.

Libya has no asylum law or procedures.

Chief Recommendations

To the Government of Libya:

  • Investigate allegations of abuse against migrants by police and by guards at facilities that detain migrants and prosecute officials responsible for abusing migrants.
  • Ensure that all allegations of sexual abuse are fully investigated and that women are encouraged to report abuse.
  • Arrest and prosecute smugglers who illegally detain, extort, and abuse migrants, and prosecute law enforcement officials who engage in corrupt relations with smugglers.
  • End the arbitrary detention of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. Improve conditions in all migration-related detention facilities.
  • Establish effective and accessible mechanisms to challenge both detention and expulsion on human rights and immigration grounds. Until these are in place, suspend all deportations and expulsions.
  • Ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and enact an asylum law.
  • Formally recognize the UN refugee agency and give it full access to all places where non-nationals are detained in Libya, including the right to conduct private interviews.

To the Government of Italy

  • Immediately cease interdicting and summarily returning boat migrants to Libya.
  • Cease bilateral support to Libya aimed at increasing its effectiveness at intercepting asylum seekers.
  • Ensure access to full and fair asylum procedures.

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