CoE Human Rights Commissioner Releases Report on Italy’s Treatment of Roma and Migrants

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, just released a report on Italy based upon his visit to Italy on 26-27 May 2011.  The report addresses concerns relating to the treatment of the Roma and Sinti and relating to the treatment of migrants, including migrants arriving from North Africa.

Excerpts:

“Strasbourg, 7 September 2011 – CommDH(2011)26 – English only

Report by Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, following his visit to Italy from 26 to 27 May 2011

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II. Protection of the human rights of migrants, including asylum seekers

Rescue operations and interceptions at sea

The Commissioner welcomes the invaluable efforts of the Italian authorities aimed at rescuing migrants on boats crossing the Mediterranean. He strongly encourages the Italian authorities to maintain their long-standing tradition of rescue, which is all the more indispensable in the current context of forced migration from Libya. He calls on the Italian authorities to ensure that in all cases where migrants are in distress at sea their rescue and safety enjoy absolute priority over all other considerations, including any lack of clarity and agreement, notably between Italy and Malta, about responsibilities for rescue. With reference to the operations carried out jointly with Libya in the central Mediterranean aimed at intercepting migrants fleeing Libya on boats and returning them there (so-called push-backs), the Commissioner urges the Italian authorities to discontinue and refrain from becoming involved in any practices in the field of interceptions at sea that may result in migrants being sent to places where they are at risk of ill treatment or onward refoulement.

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II. Protection of the human rights of migrants, including asylum seekers

44. Following the political unrest in Tunisia and the armed conflict in Libya, the number of migrants, including asylum seekers, arriving on boats to Italy, and in particular Lampedusa, has increased sharply. Since mid-January, approximately 24 000 people have arrived from Tunisia. At the end of March 2011, migrants also started to arrive on boats from Libya (the biggest groups being nationals of Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Ivory Coast, Bangladesh, Eritrea and Somalia) and by 23 June their number had almost reached 20 000. In addition to arrivals from Tunisia and Libya, some 2 000 migrants landed in southern Italy on boats coming from Egypt, Greece and Turkey. On 23 June, the total figure of arrivals by sea to Italy since January 2011 therefore stood at around 46 000.

45. It is clear that these events pose a number of challenges relating to a wide range of human rights, including the right to seek asylum and the right to life, notably in connection with rescue operations at sea. With most of the migrants from Northern Africa seeking refuge and a new life in “Europe” generally, and not specifically in the countries that they reach first, the European dimension of these challenges is equally clear. Certainly, the ongoing military operations in Libya and their impact on migratory movements bound to Europe has lent further visibility to this European and international dimension. Accordingly, the Commissioner has on many occasions called for a greater European role, in the form of solidarity and co-operation in meeting the human rights challenges relating to arrivals of migrants, including asylum seekers, from Northern Africa, but unfortunately the response has been limited. The Commissioner reiterates this call in respect of the situation with which Italy is confronted at the moment.

46. At the same time, the Commissioner wishes to stress that Italy must abide by its human rights obligations vis-à-vis all migrants, including asylum seekers, who find themselves within Italy’s jurisdiction – a responsibility which in the Commissioner’s view has not been met fully. While the Italian authorities have taken a number of steps to protect the human rights of these persons, from rescue at sea through to reception and access to asylum, concerns remain in different subject areas, some of which are highlighted below.

47. More generally, the Commissioner wishes to stress that a more objective and balanced representation of the migration movements prompted by the events in Northern Africa, and notably the conflict in Libya, would assist in ensuring a human rights compliant response to these phenomena in both Italy and Europe as a whole. In this respect, the Commissioner notes that the 20 000 arrivals from Libya to Italy mentioned above stand, at least for the moment, in stark contrast with the many times greater forecasts concerning the potential number of arrivals from Libya which had been made publicly in Italy at the beginning of the conflict. It is also sobering to note that these arrivals account for around 2% of the persons having left Libya as a result of the conflict. Indeed, 98% of the approximately 1 100 000 people who have left Libya so far have done so by crossing land borders into Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Chad and Algeria.

a. Rescue operations and interceptions at sea

48. The Italian authorities, and particularly the coast guard and customs police, have been instrumental in saving the lives of many migrants who have attempted to reach European shores from Northern Africa on unseaworthy boats. Rescue operations have obviously intensified in recent months, reflecting the increase in departures of migrant boats from Tunisia and Libya since January 2011.

49. Over the same time period, however, at least as many as 1 500 persons have lost their lives while trying to cross the Mediterranean to seek a safe haven. The Commissioner notes that responsibilities remain to be ascertained in certain cases. For instance, in an episode which is currently being investigated by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and which resulted in the death at sea of 61 persons, including over 20 women and children, a boat carrying 72 migrants was left adrift for two weeks in spite of its presence having reportedly been signalled to the authorities of Italy, Malta and NATO, and the boat itself having been spotted by a helicopter and a passing vessel of unidentified nationalities. The Commissioner notes that in some cases, lack of clarity and agreement, notably between Italy and Malta, about responsibilities for rescue may delay operations or otherwise put the lives of migrants in distress at risk. More generally, the Commissioner finds it difficult to accept that people in distress at sea can face death in one of the busiest areas of the Mediterranean, especially now with the large numbers of military and other vessels in the area.

50. The Commissioner also notes that since May 2009, and up to the beginning of the armed conflict in Libya in February 2011, the Italian authorities have carried out operations jointly with Libya in the central Mediterranean, aimed at intercepting migrants fleeing Libya on boats and returning them there (so-called respingimenti, or push-backs). The practice has been repeatedly criticised for violating international human rights law, as migrants, including asylum seekers, are returned to Libya where they risk being ill-treated or in turn deported to other countries where they are exposed to such a risk, without being given an opportunity to seek and enjoy international protection through an individual assessment of their case. Indeed, in a case that is currently pending before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, a group of Somali and Eritrean migrants who were travelling by boat from Libya have argued that the decision of the Italian authorities to intercept their vessels on the high seas and send them straight back to Libya exposed them to a risk of ill-treatment there, as well as to a serious threat of being sent back to their countries of origin, where they might also face ill-treatment.24

51. The Commissioner notes that the beginning of these operations started shortly after the conclusion of agreements between Italy and Libya in 2008 and 2009.25 In his 2009 report on Italy, the Commissioner expressed “his disapproval of bilateral or multilateral agreements for the forced return of irregular migrants to countries with long-standing, proven records of torture”,26 a concern which was shared by the Parliamentary Assembly in June 2010.27 In February 2011, following the beginning of the armed conflict in Libya, Italy announced that it had suspended the implementation of its agreements with Libya. However, the Commissioner also notes that on 17 June 2011, Italy signed with the Libyan National Transitional Council a Memorandum of Understanding, which refers to the commitments contained in the agreements previously signed with Libya and provides for mutual assistance and co-operation in combating irregular immigration, “including the repatriation of immigrants in an irregular situation.”28

Conclusions and recommendations

52. The Commissioner welcomes the invaluable efforts of the Italian authorities aimed at rescuing migrants on boats in the Mediterranean, which have saved thousands of lives over the past months and years. He strongly encourages the Italian authorities to maintain their long-standing tradition of rescue, a task which is all the more indispensable in the current context of forced migration from Libya.

53. At the same time, the Commissioner calls on the Italian authorities to ensure that in all cases where migrants are in distress at sea their rescue and safety enjoy absolute priority over all other considerations. The attention of the Italian authorities is drawn to the PACE resolution 1821 (2011)29 adopted in June 2011, which calls on member states to “fulfil without exception and without delay their obligation to save people in distress at sea.”30 In this connection, the Commissioner recalls that on 8 April, just two days after a boat from Libya carrying more than 220 migrants capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa causing the death by drowning of more than 200 persons, UNHCR recommended that “[a]ny overcrowded boat leaving Libya these days should be considered to be in distress.” On the same occasion UNHCR also underlined that “[a] long-standing tradition of saving lives at sea may be at risk if it becomes an issue of contention between States as to who rescues whom.”

54. The Commissioner urges the Italian authorities to discontinue and refrain from becoming involved in any practices in the field of interceptions at sea that may result in migrants being sent to places where they are at risk of ill treatment or onward refoulement. The Commissioner wishes to highlight that when a state exercises effective control, authority or power over third-country nationals rescued or intercepted at sea (including the state’s own territorial waters, those of another state and international waters) its obligations include ensuring effective access to adequate asylum determination procedures and not returning individuals to countries where they would face a real risk of persecution or treatment contrary notably to Articles 2 (right to life) and 3 (prohibition of torture) of the ECHR.

55. In this connection, the Commissioner draws once more the attention of the Italian authorities to the PACE resolution 1821 (2011) which calls on member states to: “refrain from any practices that might be tantamount to direct or indirect refoulement, including on the high seas, in keeping with the UNHCR’s interpretation of the extraterritorial application of that principle and with the relevant judgements of the European Court of Human Rights”; and to “suspend any bilateral agreements they may have concluded with third states if the human rights of those intercepted are not appropriately guaranteed therein, particularly the right of access to an asylum procedure, and wherever these might be tantamount to a violation of the principle of non-refoulement […].”31

56. In accordance with UNHCR’s recommendations on protection with regard to people fleeing from Libya, the Commissioner strongly encourages the Italian authorities to continue to keep the country’s borders open for people who are forced to flee from Libya and are in need of international protection.32

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Click here for Report.

Click here for CoE Press Statement.

Click here for CoE Human Rights website regarding human rights of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

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Filed under Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe, Italy, Libya, Malta, Mediterranean, News, Reports, Tunisia

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