Italy violated human rights by returning migrants to Libya, court rules
European court of human rights ruling likely to shape EU immigration policy at time of upheaval in north Africa
Italy violated international human rights laws when it intercepted migrants adrift in the Mediterranean in 2009 and returned them to Libya, the European court of human rights has ruled.
The Strasbourg court ruling on Italy’s Berlusconi-era “push back” policies – since suspended – is now likely to play a key role in shaping future EU immigration policy at a time of political and economic upheaval in north Africa.
“It is the first time a court has recognised the unlawfulness of the push back operations with regard to international law and human rights,” said Andrea Saccucci, one of the Rome lawyers representing the migrants. “We are very satisfied, and hope it will prevent similar actions in the future.”
The 11 Somali and 13 Eritrean nationals represented in the complaint were part of a group of 200 migrants, including children and pregnant women, who left Libya in 2009 on board three boats bound for Italy.
Their boats ran into trouble on high seas 35 miles south of Lampedusa. Though they were within Malta’s maritime search and rescue region, they were eventually rescued by Italian customs and coast guard vessels.
Italian authorities returned them by ship to Tripoli, where they were handed over to Libyan authorities without efforts to identify them, screen them or offer them asylum procedures.
Lawyers for the migrants argued that such interception violated their rights to seek political asylum and also exposed them to the risk of torture or degrading treatment in detention camps in Libya, or to expulsion back to home countries where they risked further persecution.
Italy had argued it was acting within the EU principles for controlling illegal immigration through partnerships with countries of origin and transit. At the time of the incident, Berlusconi’s interior minister, under pressure to stem the massive tide of immigration to Italy’s shores, defended the interceptions arguing they were in line with recently signed bilateral agreements with Libya.
The refugees faced poor detention conditions in Libya, which had no domestic asylum procedure, leaving them stuck in “temporary” detention centres that were anything but. Some spent months in Libyan prisons. One of the 22 listed in the complaint who had been turned back to Libya eventually made it back to the Italian mainland and last year was given asylum seeker status. This was proof, his lawyers said, of the contradictory nature of Italy’s immigration policy.
“I am very happy inside,” the 27-year-old Eritrean national told the Guardian in a telephone interview from Rome. “I am thanking God.”
Each of the 22 migrants represented were awarded €15,000 compensation in the judgment.
The UN estimates that more than 1,000 migrants were intercepted by the Italian coast guard and forcibly returned to Libya during the time the policy was in place. “I believe that now the Monti government must take this historical ruling into serious consideration,” attorney Anton Giulio Lana told the Guardian by phone. “And keep it in mind as they renegotiate all their immigration agreements with the Libyan National Transitional Council.
“Today’s important ruling vindicates what human rights groups argued all along: Italy put these people at grave risk when it pushed them back to Libya,” said Judith Sunderland, senior western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Even on the high seas, European states can’t wash their hands of responsibilities towards migrants and refugees.”
from Andrea Vogt