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Italy Condemned for Violations of African Refugee Rights

This post is part of our special coverage on Refugees.

On February 23, 2012, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has come to a historic judgment, that Italy violated the European Convention on Human Rights by intercepting and sending back Eritrean and Somali migrants to Libya.

African Refugees by Vito Manzari on Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

African Refugees by Vito Manzari on Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Unione Diritti Umani Blog explains [it] the events:

Il caso Hirsi e altri contro Italia riguarda la prima operazione di respingimento effettuata il 6 maggio 2009, a 35 miglia a sud di Lampedusa, in acque internazionali. Le autorità italiane hanno intercettato una barca con a bordo circa 200 somali ed eritrei, tra cui bambini e donne in stato di gravidanza. Questi migranti sono stati presi a bordo da una imbarcazione italiana, respinti a Tripoli e riconsegnati, contro la loro volontà, alle autorità libiche. Senza essere identificati, ascoltati né preventivamente informati sulla loro reale destinazione. I migranti erano, infatti, convinti di essere diretti verso le coste italiane. 11 cittadini somali e 13 cittadini eritrei, rintracciati e assistiti in Libia dal Consiglio italiano per i rifugiati dopo il loro respingimento, hanno presentato un ricorso contro l’Italia alla Corte Europea, attraverso gli avvocati Anton Giulio Lana e Andrea Saccucci, dell’Unione forense per la tutela dei diritti umani.

The Hirsi case and others versus Italy pertains to the first push back operation carried out on May 6, 2009, in international waters, 35 miles south of Lampedusa. Italian authorities intercepted a boat carrying some 200 Somalis and Eritreans, including children and pregnant women. The migrants were then taken on board an Italian ship, sent back to Tripoli, and handed over against their will to Libyan authorities. They were not identified, no one  listened to them or informed beforehand of their actual destination. In fact, the migrants were convinced that were heading toward the Italian coast. After this operation, 11 Somali citizens and 13 Eritrean citizens, who were found and helped in Libya by the Italian Council for Refugees, brought action against Italy before the European Court of Justice. Assistance was provided by Anton Giulio Lana and Andrea Saccucci, from the Union of Lawyers for Protection of Human Rights.

GiulioL [it] described the operation upon their arrival in Tripoli [it] on the blog ilmalpaese:

Sul molo di Tripoli li aspettava la polizia libica, con i camion container pronti a caricarli, come carri bestiame, per poi smistarli nelle varie prigioni del paese. A bordo di quelle motovedette c’era un fotogiornalista, Enrico Dagnino, che ha raccontato la violenza di quell’operazione. Poi fu censura.

The Libyan police were awaiting them on the dock with container trucks ready to pick them up, like livestock onto cattle cars, and then send them to various prisons around the country. A photojournalist, Enrico Dagnino, who was on board the patrol boat, described in detail the violence in this operation. After that, the proceedings were censored.

This action led to the non-implementation of the principles governing the treatment of people fleeing from danger, Henry Oliver explains on the UK Human Rights blog:

 The return involved a violation of Article 3 (anti-torture and inhumane treatment), Article 4 of Protocol 4 (collective expulsion of aliens), and  Article 13 (right to an effective remedy). The patrols that returned migrants to Libya were in breach of the non-refoulement principle.

An immigrant's t-shirt saying "I am an immigrant using soap and water" to avoid abuse. By Cristiano Corsini on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

An immigrant's t-shirt saying "I am an immigrant using soap and water" to avoid abuse. By Cristiano Corsini on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The old Italian government, formed by Silvio Berlusconi's party, Popolo della libertà (People of Freedom), and Umberto Bossi's extreme right party, the Northern League, created a legal arsenal and took steps against immigration in Italy, which have been denounced on several occasions by civil society and the Catholic Church. Italy has also been condemned on various instances for its anti-immigration [it] policy, which is inconsistent with European treaties.

Gabriele Del Grande's blog fortresseurope.blogspot.com [it] publishes information about Fortess Europe's activities for the defense of immigrant rights. The association has produced a great number of reports, first hand accounts and films on refugee treatment in Italy as well as in other European countries.

Here he describes prison life [it] in Libya during the rule of the old regime:

Siamo a Misratah, 210 km a est di Tripoli, in Libia. E i detenuti sono tutti richiedenti asilo politico eritrei, arrestati al largo di Lampedusa o nei quartieri degli immigrati a Tripoli. Vittime collaterali della cooperazione italo libica contro l’immigrazione. Sono più di 600 persone, tra cui 58 donne e diversi bambini e neonati. Sono in carcere da più di due anni, ma nessuno di loro è stato processato. Dormono in camere senza finestre di 4 metri per 5, fino a 20 persone, buttati per terra su stuoini e materassini di gommapiuma. Di giorno si riuniscono nel cortile di 20 metri per 20 su cui si affacciano le camere, sotto lo sguardo vigile della polizia. Sono ragazzi tra i 20 e i 30 anni. La loro colpa? Aver tentato di raggiungere l’Europa per chiedere asilo.

We are in Misratah, 210 km east of Tripoli, in Libya. All the prisoners here are Eritrean asylum seekers, arrested offshore of Lampedusa or in immigrant neighborhoods in Tripoli. Collateral victims of Italy's and Libya's cooperation against immigration. More than 600 people, of whom 58 are women, there are also several children and babies in the group. They have been in prison for over two years, but none of them has been tried. Up to 20 people sleep laid out on mats or foam mattresses in windowless rooms measuring 4 meters by 5. During the day, they are placed under the police's vigilant eye into a courtyard, measuring 20 meters by 20, onto which the rooms open. They are all between 20 and 30 years old. And what did they do wrong? Attempt to reach Europe in search of asylum.

The blog observatoirecitoyen.over-blog.org discloses [fr] that:

Le principe de non refoulement, inscrit dans la Convention des Nations unies sur le statut des réfugiés de 1951, interdit de renvoyer une personne vers un pays où sa vie ou sa liberté peut être menacée. …

Quelque 602 migrants ont été interceptés en mer et immédiatement refoulés de mai à juillet 2009, principalement vers la Libye, un pays où “toute personne détenue risque d'être soumise à des mauvais traitements sérieux” ou d'être renvoyée vers un pays où existent de tels risques, note le CPT (Comité de prévention de la torture).

Certes, reconnaît-il, “les Etats ont le droit souverain de protéger leurs frontières et de contrôler l'immigration”, mais l'Italie doit revoir ses procédures pour s'assurer que tous les migrants interceptés reçoivent d'abord des soins et puissent déposer une demande d'asile.

The principle of non-refoulement, enshrined in the 1951 in the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, prohibits sending a person back to a country where his life or freedom may be threatened. …

From May to July 2009, some 602 migrants were intercepted at sea and immediately turned away. They were chiefly sent back to Libya, a country where “every person arrested risks being subjected to serious mistreatment,” or of being sent back to a country where such risks do exist, the CPT remarked (Committee for the Prevention of Torture).

Of course, the CPT admits, “States have the sovereign right to protect their borders and control immigration,” but Italy should review its procedures to ensure that all intercepted migrants first receive care and can apply for asylum.

Unfortunately in Europe, Italy is not the only country to carry out forced mass repatriations. This association reports [it] that:

Dal 1988 sono morte lungo le frontiere dell'Europa almeno 18.058 persone. Di cui 2.251 soltanto dall'inizio del 2011. Il dato è aggiornato al 7 dicembre 2011 e si basa sulle notizie censite negli archivi della stampa internazionale degli ultimi 23 anni. Il dato reale potrebbe essere molto più grande. Nessuno sa quanti siano i naufragi di cui non abbiamo mai avuto notizia. Lo sanno soltanto le famiglie dei dispersi, che dal Marocco allo Sri Lanka, si chiedono da anni che fine abbiano fatto i loro figli partiti un bel giorno per l'Europa e mai più tornati.

Since 1988, at least 18,058 [it] people have died along Europe's borders. Of this only 2,251 have died since the beginning of 2011. This data was updated on December 7, 2011, and was based on the census data from the international press archives over the past 23 years. The real figure could be much higher. No one knows how many ships have wrecked since we have never heard. Only the families of the missing persons know. These families, from Morocco to Sri Lanka, have been questioning for years what has happened to their children who left one day for Europe and never came back.

Paolo Lambruschi, for his part, wrote [it] on website of the Italian Episcopal Conference's newspaper:

E, cosa che interessa tutta l’Ue, andranno riviste le operazioni Frontex di pattugliamento del Mediterraneo perché per la prima volta viene equiparato il respingimento di gruppi alla frontiera e in alto mare allé espulsioni collettive. A 22 ricorrenti su 24, 11 somali e 13 eritrei, l’Italia dovrà versare un risarcimento di 15 mila euro più le spese processuali. Gli altri due sono morti.

And, something which concerns all EU countries, the operations of Frontex patrols in the Mediterranean will be revised, because for the first time the pushing back of groups at borders and on the high seas is tantamount to mass deportations. Italy will have to pay 15,000 euros plus legal costs to 22 of 24 plaintiffs, 11 Somalis and 13 Eritreans. The other two are dead.

Gabriele Del Grande's blog fortresseurope.blogspot.com concludes [it]:

Un giorno a Lampedusa e a Zuwarah, a Evros e a Samos, a Las Palmas e a Motril saranno eretti dei sacrari con i nomi delle vittime di questi anni di repressione della libertà di movimento. E ai nostri nipoti non potremo neanche dire che non lo sapevamo. Di seguito la rassegna completa e aggiornata delle notizie, dal 1988 a oggi. Per un'analisi delle statistiche, frontiera per frontiera, leggete la scheda Fortezza Europa.

One day, at Lampedusa and at Zouara, at Samos at Evros, at Las Palmas and at Motril, shrines will be erected with the victims’ names from these years of repression of freedom of movement. And we won't be able to tell our grandchildren that we didn't know. Here you can find a comprehensive presentation and updates of information, from 1988 until today. For an analysis of the statistics, border by border, read the map Fortezza Europa (Fortress Europe).

This post is part of our special coverage on Refugees.

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