On Thursday February 23, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights will rule on a case that has serious implications for the refugee policy around the world. The case in question, Hirsi and others v. Italy was brought on behalf of a group of Somali and Eritrean migrants, whose boats was intercepted in the Mediterranean by an Italian vessel in 2009.
All those on the intercepted vessels were summarily returned to Libya, without being given any chance to claim refugee status. Their complaint to the court argues that this “push back policy” in international waters implemented by the then government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi deprived them of their fundamental right to seek asylum in Italy, while exposing them to inhuman and degrading treatment back in Libya.
While the case dates back to 2009, the concerns for migrant rights at the heart of the case remain very much current, in the broad policies adopted by Italy in response to last year’s influx of migrants from North Africa.
In Hirsi, the applicants were on board three boats carrying around 200 people that were stopped by the Italian coast guard in international waters off the coast of Lampedusa. The passengers, including children and pregnant women, were transferred to Italian ships and summarily returned to Libya, under a 2009 bi-lateral agreement signed between Italy and a Libyan government then headed by the late Muammar al-Qaddafi. Their story is powerfully told in a new documentary, Closed Sea, made by Stefano Liberti and Andrea Segre and partly funded by the Open Society Foundations.
The Italian Council for Refugees found the applicants suffering ill-treatment in Libyan migrant detention centers, and sought the assistance of Anton Giulio Lana and Andrea Saccucci, two lawyers from the Forensic Union for the Protection of Human Rights (UFTDU), to file a complaint with the ECHR.
But when the Qaddafi government expelled the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2010, the conditions facing the sorts of most applicants turned even worse, as black Africans found themselves the target of attacks. Some fled to Tunisia, others tried once again to escape to Europe. Only three of the claimants in the Hirsi case are known to have reached safe destinations. Just one managed to get to Italy where, after being held for several months in a migrant detention center, he was given refugee status.
Italy has never abandoned its push back policy, which was bitterly criticised by rights groups and attacked by the UNHCR, although its agreement with Libya collapsed amid the political chaos of 2011. However, last August over 100 people were reportedly taken off a boat by Italian vessels and transferred to Tunisian ship, sparking renewed expressions of concern from Amnesty International, and from the UNHCR. Italy has also continued to pursue the policy of making sure that refugees never leave North Africa, by funding coast guard patrols on both land and sea. In 2011, Italy also renewed agreements on patrolling with the new Tunisian government and resumed talks with the Libyan transitional authority,
In 2011, some 40,000 migrants arrived in Italy from sub-Sahara Africa, of whom roughly half have requested refugee status. Most are still held in a dozen migrant detention centers across the country, while the government also resorted to holding several hundred Tunisians on ships moored in Palermo harbor, drawing protests from local NGO groups who argue that this constitutes a form of illegal “informal” detention. One detention center, on the island of Lampedusa, is now closed following a revolt by people held there in September 2011.
Since 2009 the Italian government has tripled the maximum period during which migrants landing in Italy can be detained in order to be identified – and possibly expelled, bringing it from three to 18 months. Meanwhile, Italy’s overall policies at its migrant detention and reception centers remain largely free of independent scrutiny or review due to being administered under a ‘state of emergency’ regulation, which the new Monti government renewed in November last year.
Italy is one of the European Union members with the smallest number of refugees, with less than one refugee for every 1,000 inhabitants. That compares with four in the United Kingdom, and seven in Germany. Rather than extending detention of migrants, Italy should be focusing on speeding up its asylum procedures. And Italy should not sign a new repatriation agreement with Libya in particular, while the country remains unstable.