(Rome) – Italy is summarily returning unaccompanied migrant children and adult asylum seekers to Greece, where they face a dysfunctional asylum system and abusive detention conditions, Human Rights Watch said in a report published today. Stowaways on ferries from Greece, including children as young as 13, are sent back by Italian authorities within hours without adequate consideration of their particular needs as children or their desire to apply for asylum.
The 45-page report, “Turned Away: Summary Returns of Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Adult Asylum Seekers from Italy to Greece,” documents the failure of Italian border police at the Adriatic ports of Ancona, Bari, Brindisi, and Venice to screen adequately for people in need of protection, in violation of Italy’s legal obligations. Human Rights Watch interviewed 29 children and adults who were summarily returned to Greece from Italian ports, 20 of them in 2012.
“Every year hundreds of people risk life and limb hiding in or under trucks and cars on ferries crossing the Adriatic Sea,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Too often Italy sends them straight back to Greece despite appalling conditions and treatment there.”
Placed in the custody of the captains of commercial ferries, adults and children alike are confined on board ships during the return journey to Greece in places such as makeshift holding cells or engine rooms and sometimes denied adequate food.
Back in Greece, unaccompanied children and asylum seekers, like all migrants, are vulnerable to law enforcement abuse, degrading conditions of detention, and a hostile environment marked by xenophobic violence, Human Rights Watch said. Ali M., an Afghan boy who was 15 when he was returned from Italy to Igoumenitsa, Greece, in March 2012, said Greek police took him to a detention facility outside the port and detained him for over two weeks with unrelated adults in squalid conditions without adequate food.
Italian and international law prohibit the removal of unaccompanied children without a determination that it is in their best interest. Yet, Human Rights Watch met with 13 children ages 13 to 17 who had been summarily returned to Greece. None of them were given access to a guardian or social services, as required by Italian and international law.
Although Italian government policy is to give an individual who claims to be a child the benefit of the doubt, Human Rights Watch research indicates that this policy is not being followed. Only one of the children interviewed had any kind of age determination examination, in his case a wrist x-ray. Ali M., for example, was returned without an age determination: “I told them I was 15, they didn’t listen. They put me in the ticket office and then on the boat.”
Best practices require a multi-disciplinary approach to evaluating age and that any medical testing be non-intrusive. Access to a guardian and social services and proper age assessments can only be carried out when children are admitted to the country.
“Most of those we met were Afghan boys fleeing danger, conflict, and poverty,” said Alice Farmer, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Italy needs to take responsibility for providing them the special protection to which they are entitled as children.”
Sending adult migrants back to Greece without giving them the opportunity to lodge asylum claims also violates national and international obligations. While Italy has the right to enforce its immigration laws, asylum seekers must be allowed to exercise the right to lodge asylum claims, and no one returned should be exposed to risks of torture or ill-treatment.
Overwhelming evidence of chronic problems with Greece’s asylum system and detention conditions has led to landmark European court rulings barring returns to that country under the Dublin II Regulation, which generally requires the first EU country of entry to process an asylum claim. Numerous EU countries have suspended transfers of asylum seekers to Greece as a result.
Italy has not suspended Dublin transfers to Greece but claims to assess the risk of rights violations when considering whether to do so. But its summary returns from the ports contradict this policy.
Most people interviewed said they had not had a chance to express their desire to apply for asylum, while five said their pleas to do so were ignored by port police officers. According to Bari border police, only 12 out of almost 900 migrants detected at the port between January 2011 and June 2012 were allowed to remain in Italy.
“Some asylum seekers may not want to apply for asylum in Italy, even if given the chance, because they are convinced that their prospects for protection and integration are better in other European countries,” Sunderland said. “But those who do want to apply for asylum should not be turned away.”
Nongovernmental organizations with contracts to provide services and information to migrants detected at the ports do not have systematic access to them, leaving decisions about who is allowed to remain in Italy in the hands of border police. None of those interviewed had been given access to nongovernmental groups or information about their rights and about applying for asylum. Only seven had been assisted by an interpreter.
“The whole point of authorizing nongovernmental groups to provide services at the ports is to ensure that migrants’ rights are respected,” Sunderland said. “But they can’t do their job if they don’t have access to all arriving migrants, and those in need are falling through the cracks.”
The European Court of Human Rights is expected to issue a judgment soon in the case of Sharife and Others v. Italy and Greece involving the 2009 summary return of 25 adults and 10 children who contend that the return violated their right to life and to protection against torture or ill-treatment, and to an effective remedy. The Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Nils Muižnieks, and the UN special rapporteur on the rights of migrants, François Crépeau, have both urged Italy to refrain from summary returns to Greece.
Human Rights Watch recommended a number of changes in Italy’s procedures, including:
- Suspend immediately the summary returns to Greece;
- Permit those reaching Italy who claim to be unaccompanied children, without exception, to stay and benefit from the specific protections guaranteed under Italian law, pending a properly conducted age determination;
- Properly screen adults to identify those with special vulnerabilities and those who wish to apply for asylum or otherwise have protection needs;
- Provide full access to all arrivals for authorized nongovernmental organizations so they can provide legal and humanitarian assistance;
- Provide ferry companies with clear guidelines for shipmasters on humane and safe treatment of stowaways when discovered on board and during returns to Greece.