Rights group: Stop Italy forcing migrants back to Libya

The European Union should demand that Italy stop forcing African migrant boats back to Libya, which is consigning would-be asylum seekers to inhumane camps in North Africa, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday.

Under a deal with Tripoli, Italy has been intercepting migrant boats in international waters since May and returning them, without screening for asylum applications, to Libya, which has not signed international treaties on refugees.

The United Nations says three-quarters of irregular migrants arriving by sea in Italy last year applied for asylum and half of them were accepted. Many were from war-torn Somalia or repressive states such as Eritrea.

“Italy flouts its legal obligations by summarily returning boat migrants to Libya,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy direct at HRW and author of the report. “The EU should demand that Italy comply with its obligations by halting these returns to Libya.”

The New York-based rights group said the EU border agency Frontex had coordinated some of the returns and it urged EU states to refuse to participate in any Frontex operations that resulted in the return of migrants to Libya.

The crackdown on illegal immigration by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government has already opened a rift within his coalition and prompted a row last month with the European Commission, which has sought an investigation into the repatriations to Libya.

Berlusconi promptly threatened to block all EU business unless Commission spokespeople were silenced.

In its 92-page report, HRW said migrants testified to brutal beatings and overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in Libyan camps.
One migrant said a companion was shot dead by Libyans when their boat was intercepted leaving the North African coast.

“We were in a wooden boat and Libyans in a [motorised inflatable] Zodiac started shooting at us ... They kept shooting until they hit our engine. One person was shot and killed,” said the migrant, whose name was not given. “They beat some of our boys until they could not walk.”

HRW called on Libya to improve detention conditions and urgently put in place asylum procedures that conform to international standards.—Reuters

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