Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Italy and Libya: a catalogue of injustices against migrants

What follow are two articles from the No Borders Brighton blog. They tell the story of Italian-Libyan cooperation to block the Libya - Lampedusa/Malta migration route. I republish the articles here in full because they tell a story that needs to be heard.

Italy: Abandon Hope All Who Sail Near

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".

Other Developments

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.

Libya: Inside The Detention Centres

On May 14 Libya took delivery of three patrol boats of the Guardia di Finanza as part of a deal struck between the Gadaffi and Berlusconi regimes to try and block one of the main clandestine migration routes into southern Europe via Italy. The loan of the three boats, to be followed by 3 more later this year, is part of Italy's new 'push-back' policy that involves the Libyans intercepting boats leaving their coastal waters in addition to accepting migrants that have been intercepted by Italian naval forces and returned to Libya. These returnees are immediately locked up in the numerous prisons and detention centres doted along Libya's Mediterranean coast.

Since Libya 'came in from the cold' in 2004, the EU, and Italy in particular, has been increasingly involving the country in its overall policy of outsourcing its immigration and asylum effort. Deals have been signed and money and equipment handed over, channelled via Frontex and the International Organisation for Migration, in exchange for patrolling Europe's southern border and for increasing the rate of deportation of migrants back to sub-Saharan countries.*

The 3 patrol boats are used to monitor the most popular setting-off point for Lampedusa and Sicily, the sparsely populated coastline between the Tunisian border and Sabratah, a stretch of coast already monitored by a police tent sited on the beach, every ten kilometres. This blanket coverage has been very effective, intercepting 500 boats in its first week of operation and provoking a fall-off in clandestine traffic, with only 400 boats interdicted in the following 8 weeks. Inevitably, migrants will be forced to risk longer and more hazardous sea crossings to try and circumvent the patrols, with the obvious consequence being more deaths.


“There are no refugees in Libya,” Brigadier General Mohamed Bashir Al Shabbani, director of the Office of Immigration at the General People’s Committee for Public Security, told Human Rights Watch. “They are people who sneak into the country illegally and they cannot be described as refugees.” And according to current estimates, there are two million of these "people who sneak into the country illegally" living precarious in Libya.

Unlike Italy and the rest of the EU, Libya itself is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Therefore, if you are not a Libyan citizen or do not hold a valid visa, you are liable to be detained and disappear into Libya's notorious prison system alongside those migrants who have been forcibly returned by Italy. Even if you do manage to avoid the ubiquitous police patrols and survive the 8 months wait for an appointment with the UNHCR, who themselves have only been operating in Libya since 2008, any refugee papers issued are effectively worthless as refugees routinely have them torn up by the police after their arrest. And once inside the prison system, as a diplomatic source in Libya told Human Rights Watch, migrants can be detained for anything “from a few weeks to 20 years.”

Libya's Gulags

There are believed to be at least 28 facilities used to hold migrant detainees. These fall into 3 types: concentration camps, like those of Sebha, Kufrah and Misratah, where migrants and refugees are concentrated waiting for their deportation. Then there are smaller facilities, such as Qatrun, Shat, Ghat, many ols warehouses where they are held for a shorter periods before being sent to the bigger camps. The remainder of these facilities however are the prisons: Jadida, Fellah, Ain Zarah and Kufar. Conditions in them are uniformly bad; foul drinking water, bad food, no chance to wash, overcrowded, constant beatings, often with cattle-prods and many women detainees raped by guards. The exceptions are a select handful of 'show home' prison and even these the Libyan authorities are reluctant to allow organisations such as the UNHCR to visit.

So, when Human Rights Watch came to compile their report, 'Pushed Back, Pushed Around', they were forced to rely on the testimonies of ex-detainees. They found that the migrants returned from Italy to Libya mostly ended up in Kufra detention centre, deep in the desert near the Sudanese border. Ostensibly a state prison, it consists of a courtyard surrounded by 6 large detention rooms, each capable of holding more than 100 migrants. These rooms are windowless, with air holes in ceiling for ventilation. Everyone sleeps on the floor and, if you are lucky, you might share a filthy mattress. Detainees are only allowed outside once a day when guards conduct the prisoner count. There they can grab a breathe of fresh air and they often receive a beating too. The prison, like most other Libyan jails, has no medical staff.

There are also buildings at Kufra that are owned and run by people smugglers, who work hand in fist with the prison guards. They too wear uniforms and it is impossible for the migrants to tell guards and smugglers apart. Once in the hands of these smugglers, migrants have no option but to pay their captors the money for their passage to Italy or they end up dumped in desert to die.** Many migrants also end up coming back to Kufra in what seems like an endless round of 'pay the smugglers, get caught and returned to Kufra', only to have to pay up again. In some Libyan prisons migrants can bribed their guards to buy their freedom. The going rate is $1,000-$1,200, exactly the cost of the boat ride to Europe. In other prisons guards just sell their captives to the smugglers for as little as 30 Libyan dinars, about €18.

This picture is not untypical. In 2006, when Gabriele del Grande visited Misratah prison, 210 km east of Tripoli, he found more than 600 Eritrean asylum seekers, mostly between 20 to 30 years old, and including 58 women and several children and babies, crammed 20 to 4 by 5 metre room, again with no windows. Some detainees had been there for more than 2 years and none had seen a lawyer or the inside of a court.

Fully Culpable

And it is not as though the Italian authorities*** are in the dark about the fate of the migrants caught up in its 'push-back' operations. In 2005, the former director of the Italian secret service (SISDe), Prefect Mario Mori, informed the Italian Parliament that: "Undocumented migrants in Libya are caught like dogs” and that they are put in to prisons so overcrowded that “policemen must wear a dust mask on the mouth because of the nauseating odours". It is clear that the Italian government is fully cognisant of the conditions that it sends the migrants back to and of the fact that it is guilty of serious violations of international law relating to the refoulement**** of refugees.

* It is also not the first time that a 'push-back' policy has been operated by a European country. Italy and Malta have tried it in 2005 and 2006 respectively and it is routine for Greek coast guards to tow boats back to Turkish waters and to sink them there, forcing their passengers to swim ashore.
** Before the guards at Kufra discovered that they could sell the migrants to people smugglers, the migrants were often loaded into the converted container lorries used to transport migrants around Libya and taken out into the desert and dumped with little or no water.
*** Or any other European government, a number of whom have in recent years concluded prisoner transfer treaties.
**** The forced return of people to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened or where they would face a risk of torture.