This Wednesday saw the publication of a Human Rights Watch report called 'Pushed Back, Pushed Around', based on interviews with 91 migrants and asylum seekers in Italy and Malta since May this year. The report's subtitle sums up the contents well: 'Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers', as Italy's new 'push-back' policy operates hand in glove with its complicity in the appalling treatment meted out to migrants it returns to fester in Libya's detention centres and prisons.
The dire living conditions and the routine brutality of prison guards that the African migrant victims of Italy's new 'final' solution to its migrant problem suffer also featured in a Channel 4 News story on the same day, based on smuggled out film footage and interviews and on the extensive reporting sourced from the Fortress Europe blog.
Both highlight an ugly story of people who have been denied due process under the international laws and conventions that Italy has signed up to but which Libya has not. An ugly story of European governments pursuing racist policies and ignoring the consequences visited upon the men, women and children they have abandoned to their fates in one of the most squalid and oppressive immigration detention systems in the world.
"On May 6, 2009, for the first time in the post-World War II era, a European state ordered its coast guard and naval vessels to interdict and forcibly return boat migrants on the high seas without doing any screening whatsoever to determine whether any passengers needed protection or were particularly vulnerable. The interdicting state was Italy; the receiving state was Libya. Italian coast guard and finance guard patrol boats towed migrant boats from international waters without even a cursory screening to see whether some might be refugees or whether others might be sick or injured, pregnant women, unaccompanied children, or victims of trafficking or other forms of violence against women. The Italians disembarked the exhausted passengers on a dock in Tripoli where the Libyan authorities immediately apprehended and detained them." - 'Pushed Back, Pushed Around'
There have been eight 'push-back operations' since the policy was launched in May, in which 757 people had been taken back to Libya. Yet, according to Nitto Francesco Palma, an Under Secretary at the Italian Interior Ministry, "Not a single request for international protection was made during this journey," despite the journey taking 10 hours, "anyone could have asked for protection or informed staff they feared persecution but no one did". Who is he trying to fool?*
These 'push-back operations' are part of an overall deal with the Libyan government to severely limit the number of boats leaving the Libyan coast for Italy as well reaching Italian shores. And the policy seems the be working. In its first week of operation, 500 boats intercepted and migrant landings have decreased by 94 per cent since the 'push-back' agreement came into effect.** At the beginning of the year, the detention centres in Lampedusa held nearly 2,000 people, and migrants were sleeping on the floors, but in early June they were completely empty. Yet Italy still claims to be dealing with more migrants than it can cope with. According to Palma, in the first eight months of 2009 Italy processed 17,203 asylum applications and granted refugee status to 1,246 people. A further 5,418 people received another form of protection while around 10,000 had their claims refused. This compares to the 31,164 new asylum applications received in 2008 (i.e. a fall of roughly 450 applications a month).
However, we have no breakdown of figures for arrivals month by month for that period, so it is difficult to tell how much of an overall effect on numbers arriving in Italy the policy is having (the 757 migrants returned only represents half of the decrease seen during the first 8 months of this year). One thing that is certain however is that the decrease in boat arrivals will lead to a reduction in both in the total number of asylum application granted and in the overall percentage. Part of the reason for this is that 75% of those who arrived in Italy by sea in 2008 applied for asylum and 50% of them received some form of international protection, whereas the overall level of applications granted was lower at about 40%.
A significant contribution to the higher rate of successful applications came from Eritrean refugees. Italy is the main route in to the EU for Ertirean migrants fleeing forced conscription and political and religious persecution, and the vast majority of the 3,000 Eritreans who reached Italy by sea in 2008, and apply for asylum, received a residence permit for international protection. Similarly, many other such arrivals are refugees from conflict zones such as Somalia or Darfur and therefore also have strong claims to be granted international protection. So one can see why the Italians might was to cut this asylum route.
Which brings us to the recent criticism of the 'push-back' policy and the fact that it falls foul of international law. Refoulement is the forced return of people to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened or where they would face a risk of torture, and it is prohibited under numerous international conventions, all of which Italy is a signatory to. This fact was again pointed out to the Italian government by the combined forces of the United Nations Refugee Commissioner, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, the European Commission Vice-President and Human Rights Watch this week. And Italy is deemed guilty not just because the Eritreans risk being returned to Eritrea by Libya but because Libya itself has one of the worst human rights records in Africa. (see Libya: Inside The Detention Centres tomorrow)
Much of this renewed international interest is due to the story of the deaths of the 73 Eritrean migrants en rote to Italy, who drifted for three weeks in the Mediterranean without rescue. The 5 surviving refugees said a dozen fishing boats passed but only one answered their calls, throwing food to them but refusing to board. Previously Sicilian fishing boats were renown for rescuing migrants' boats when in trouble but according to Laura Boldrini of the UNHCR, "with Italy's new law making immigration a crime, they've become too afraid".
In other moves, two Italian public prosecutor's offices have instigated legal challenges to the new Bossi-Fini immigration law, claiming that it violates the Italian constitution and as such should be unenforceable. One case, in the northern city of Turin, involves a nine-month-old baby born in Italy to a Moroccan mother, legally resident in the country, and an Egyptian father without a residence permit. The couple are unable to register the baby either as Italian or Egyptian, while the father, a trained psychologist, is under threat of deportation. This decision on this case, which cites the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child guaranteeing minors the right ''to their personal identity and to citizenship from birth", is expected in early October.
The second case, in the Sicilian city of Agrigento, involves 21 migrants who are being prosecuted for arriving in southern Sicily without papers. The prosecutor's office this time is citing the UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air (2000), which they say obliges signatory states to assist and protect migrants in difficulty, not prosecute them. Simply entering Italy without permission or overstaying a permit should not of itself be proof that someone represents a threat to public safety. This case is currently adjourned, awaiting a ruling from Italy's Constitutional Court.
Hopefully the mounting pressure on the Italian government will force them to back-track on this law but, given the high public rating of the Berlusconi regime and the increasing popularity of the blackshirt-style anti-migrant citizens street patrols, it seems highly unlikely. After all, this is not the first time that Italy has had its wrists slapped for something like this***, and it is not just Italy but the whole of the rest of the EU that is relying on policies like 'push-back' and deals with the Libyan regime to cut clandestine migration into Fortress Europe.
* See the Paris Match photos for a typical expulsion.
** Deaths on the Libya - Lampedusa/Malta route have also fallen - there were 339 victims in the first 6 months of 2009, compared with 650 in the same period of 2008.
*** A previous Italian series of collective expulsions towards Libya where condemned in 2005 by the European Parliament and by the European Court of Human Rights.