This push-back policy means that hundreds of mainly African people trying to reach Italy by boat are intercepted in international waters and subsequently brought back to countries such as Libya. Since May 2009 at least 900 individuals were returned this way in only two months.
While it is possible, even probable, that among these people risking their lives to reach European shores, many are in need of international protection and have the right to be granted asylum, they are not guaranteed that their situation will be examined. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have critized Italy’s push-back practices.
In July 2009, a lawsuit was filed before the European Court of Human Rights by a group of asylum seekers from Somalia and Eritrea who were intercepted and transferred to Libya without human rights guarantees. Recently, Italy gave its statement to the Court in this regard. It is now waiting for the plaintiffs to reply, whereupon the Court will make its decision.
In the meanhile, the CPT stated in a recent report that Italy’s push-back policy violates the principle of non-refoulement. The following are some of its conclusions:
“Italy’s policy, in its present form, of intercepting migrants at sea and obliging them to return to Libya or other non-European countries, violates the principle of non-refoulement, which forms part of Italy’s obligations under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.” (48)
“Italy is bound by the principle of non-refoulement wherever it exercises its jurisdiction, which includes via its personnel and vessels engaged in border protection or rescue at sea, even when operating outside its territory. Moreover, all persons coming within Italy’s jurisdiction should be afforded an appropriate opportunity and facilities to seek international protection.” (49)
“(…), the persons who were pushed back to Libya in the operations carried out from May to July 2009 were denied the right to obtain an individual assessment of their case and effective access to the refugee protection system.” (49)
“Libya cannot be considered a place of safety, nor a safe country in terms of human rights and refugee law; the situation of persons arrested and detained in Libya, including that of migrants – who are also exposed to being deported to other countries by Libya – indicates that the persons pushed back to Libya are at risk of ill-treatment.” (50)
“The CPT urges the Italian authorities to substantially review forthwith the current practice of intercepting migrants at sea, so as to ensure that all persons within Italy’s jurisdiction – including those intercepted at sea outside Italian territorial waters by Italian-controlled vessels – receive the necessary humanitarian and medical care that their condition requires and that they have effective access to procedures and safeguards capable of guaranteeing respect for the principle of non-refoulement.” (51)
This conclusion of the CPT is highly important in the light of the coming decision of the European Court of Human Rights on Italy’s asylum policy. It is a powerful signal, not only towards Italy but also towards other European countries carrying out the practice of intercepting and returning migrants without human rights guarantees, such as Spain and Greece.