by Costanza Hermanin, Open Society
The European Court of Human Rights will on Wednesday, June 22, hear complaints raised against Italy by a group of Somali and Eritrean migrants who were pushed back to Libya by Italian naval vessels in their attempt to reach the Italian coast.
While the Hirsi and Others v. Italy case dates back to 2009, new policies adopted in response the current influx of migrants from North Africa continue raising concern over human rights of migrants landing in Italy. On June 17 Italy signed new agreements on patrolling and repatriation with the Libyan Transition Government, envisaging returns to a country currently at war. One day earlier, it tripled the maximum time for the administrative detention of migrants, from six to 18 months.
In the Hirsi case, the applicants were on board three boats carrying around 200 people that were stopped by the Italian coast guard off the coast of Malta. The passengers were transferred to Italian ships and returned to Libya, under a 2008 bi-lateral agreement signed between the two countries. The complaint argues that the interception violated the applicants’ rights as to seek political asylum, while also exposing them to the risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment in detention camps in Libya, or in their home countries.
After the filing of Hirsi and the 2010 criticism of the push-back policy at UN Human Rights Committee, Italy stopped openly pushing back migrants, including potential refugees, to Libya. But it in addition the new agreement with the Libyan Transitional Committee, it has also signed similar agreements with Tunisia, setting the stage for a resumption of push-backs at sea.
Italy is also now riding roughshod over basic human rights on its own soil, under national emergency powers declared in response to the influx of people fleeing North African crises. So far this year, some 14,000 asylum seekers from sub-Sahara Africa, and around 20,000 economic migrants have arrived on Italy’s shores.
In addition to using its emergency powers to centralize the management of landing sites and set up “tent city” reception centers, the government is also forbidding access to these centers to anyone but a few NGOs. Restrictions also apply on visits from journalists, a ban that led to protests from the Italian Federation of the Press and the Order of Journalists.
Those few observers able to visit the camps—Medecins Sans Frontiers, a few MPs and a freelance reporter from Repubblica—have reported clear evidence of disregard for basic human rights standards and asked for the immediate closure of the camps.
The reporting by the freelance journalist who managed to enter the Palazzo San Gervasio detention camp in Basilicata included a video shot by Tunisian detainees testifying to harsh conditions, violence, and injuries. The migrants detained there said they had been given no information about the possibility of seeking asylum, contacting their family or being provided with legal assistance, in open disregard of European and national norms. A lawyer from a local NGO who subsequently tried to enter the camp following phone contacts with detainees had to wait one week before gaining access to her prospective clients.
The reporting also highlighted the inadequate camp conditions inside the Palazzo San Gervasio camp, which was one of 3 new tent camps set up to accommodate the surge of migrants. The sites were initially designed as temporary reception camps. However, the tent towns were turned into detention camps after other European governments including France and Germany objected to Italy’s policy of providing migrants with temporary humanitarian permits allowing them to travel.
While the European Court of Human Rights will have a chance to review the push-backs performed in 2009, proper national scrutiny over current policy in Italian migrant detention centers is prevented by the government ban on the access to these facilities.
Italy has one of the smallest refugee populations of any European Union country. It should focus on speeding up its asylum procedures, rather than extending detention, or signing more repatriation agreements with unsafe countries.