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Migrants on a boat that they tried to take to Italy, after being detained at a Libyan Navy base in Tripoli on September 20, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

(Milan) – Italy’s deployment of Navy ships to assist Libyan authorities intercept migrant boats in Libyan waters could implicate Italy in human rights abuses against migrants subsequently detained in Libya, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The Italian Navy deployment in Libyan waters could effectively lead to arbitrary detention of people in abusive conditions,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “After years of saving lives at sea, Italy is preparing to help Libyan forces who are known to detain people in conditions that expose them to a real risk of torture, sexual violence, and forced labor.”

The objective of the mission approved on August 2, 2017, by the Italian parliament is to assist Libyan forces in the “fight against illegal immigration and human smuggling” through reconnaissance, surveillance, and sharing intelligence. In a public session at the Italian Parliament on August 1, Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti indicated that details of the rules of engagement would be laid down in a future technical agreement with Libyan authorities. She did not answer numerous questions from parliament about where migrants intercepted or rescued in operations involving the Italian Navy would be disembarked.

Under international and regional human rights law, no one rescued or intercepted by an European Union-flagged ship or under the custody or control of an EU member state can be sent back to a place or handed over to authorities where they face a real risk of torture or ill-treatment – known as the non-refoulement principle. On the facts, this includes pushbacks to Libya or handovers to Libyan forces and applies even if Italy rescues or interdicts people in Libyan territorial waters. The European Court of Human Rights affirmed this principle in a landmark 2012 ruling against Italy for its 2009 policy of intercepting migrant boats and transferring the migrants back to Libya.

It is unclear whether Italian officers will take control of migrant vessels or take custody of migrants in Libyan waters and if they do where those migrants would be disembarked, Human Rights Watch said. But even if the Italian Navy simply provides intelligence to Libyan coast guard forces that leads to the foreseeable apprehension and detention of migrants in abusive conditions, Italy could share responsibility under international law for assisting Libyan authorities in committing internationally wrongful acts. Italy could also be implicated in denying people’s right to leave any country and interfering with the right to seek asylum under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Libya has not ratified the international refugee convention and does not have a functioning asylum system.

The evidence of brutality against migrants in Libya is overwhelming. A December 2016 report from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN mission in Libya documented widespread malnutrition, forced labor, illness, beatings, sexual abuse, torture, and other abuses in immigration detention centers in Libya. A German Foreign Ministry memo leaked to the media in January 2017 stated that migrants in Libya are executed, tortured, raped, extorted, and banished to the desert “on a daily basis.” Human Rights Watch has documented abuses against migrants in Libya for years, including by guards in detention centers under the Directorate for Illegal Migration (DCIM), Libyan coast guard forces, and smugglers.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has previously called on all countries to “allow civilians fleeing Libya (Libyan nationals, habitual residents of Libya, and third country nationals) access to their territories.”

The disembarkation of tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers in Italy has strained the country’s reception system and fueled a problematic political debate, Human Rights Watch said. EU governments, notably Spain and France, rejected Italy’s recent request to share greater of responsibility for allowing people rescued at sea to disembark there. EU asylum rules mean that Italy bears responsibility for processing the vast majority of asylum seekers who reach its shores. Since 2015, only 7,935 people have been relocated from Italy to other EU member states under an emergency plan meant to benefit almost 35,000.

Italy is intensifying its efforts to reduce the numbers, including by imposing a code of conduct on nongovernmental organizations performing search and rescue in the central Mediterranean. Amid serious concerns that the code of conduct will limit the ability of nongovernmental groups to operate effectively to save lives and could violate their neutrality and independence, five out of eight organizations have refused to sign. Nongovernmental groups conducted almost 40 percent of rescues in first five months of the year.

According to the International Organization for Migration, over 94,800 people have reached Italy by sea since the beginning of the year. At least 2,221 have died trying. UNHCR data shows that two-thirds of those arriving are from eight sub-Saharan African countries. Children, the majority traveling unaccompanied, make up 15 percent. Authorities have an obligation to ensure that migrants under their control or jurisdiction have the right to a fair and efficient asylum procedure and to identify vulnerable people, but are also entitled to remove people with no valid claim to remain from their territory following a procedure that guarantees their rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Italy is at the forefront of EU-sponsored efforts to train Libyan coast guard forces, establish a functioning maritime rescue coordination center, and improve detention conditions in Libya. In April, the European Commission allocated €90 million to support assistance projects for migrants in Libya, and in late July approved another €46 million to land and sea border control. Any cooperation with Libyan authorities that would result in migrants being held in Libyan custody should only take place with clear evidence that these undertakings have met human rights benchmarks, including demonstrable improvement in the treatment of migrants. This requires independent and transparent monitoring, but no dedicated independent monitoring system has been established for either the training program or Libyan detention centers.

Italian ships, including in Libyan waters, have an obligation to rescue people in distress at sea or if Libyan ships are better placed to perform the rescue, to assist Libyan coast guard forces. To prevent abuse of migrants, Italian Navy personnel should seek to ensure that anyone rescued is disembarked in a place of safety outside Libya, Human Rights Watch said.

Italy should not assist Libyan coast guard forces to intercept migrants who are not in distress until there is a guarantee that migrants in Libya will not be subject to abuses including arbitrary detention, Human Rights Watch said. Sustained and significant improvements in conditions and treatment in detention centers, as well as in the capacity of Libyan coast guard forces to perform their duties safely and humanely would also be required.

EU countries, including Italy, should increase safe and legal channels into the EU, including working with the UNHCR to resettle recognized refugees currently in Libya. Other pathways such as humanitarian, student, work and research visas could help reduce demand for smuggling and dangerous journeys, Human Rights Watch said.

“Deputizing Libyan forces to help seal Europe’s border before ensuring that migrant’s most basic rights will be respected in Libya is unconscionable,” Sunderland said. “EU governments should be working first to end abuses against migrants in Libya, and meanwhile guarantee robust search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, including by nongovernmental groups, and genuinely share in responsibility for disembarkation, identification, and reception.” 

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