Pushed Back, Pushed Around: Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers (Human Rights Watch, 2009)

This report examines the treatment of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Libya through the eyes of those who have left that country and are now in Italy and Malta. These people, unlike their counterparts who are still in Libya, are free to talk about their experiences without fear of retribution. The report has two purposes. First, it is intended to hold Libyan authorities accountable for their mistreatment of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. It therefore seeks to improve the deplorable conditions of detention in Libya and to encourage Libya to establish asylum procedures in conformity with international refugee standards. Secondly, this report is intended to hold the Italian government, the European Union (EU), and its external borders migration control agency, Frontex, accountable for any harm that befalls people who are returned to Libya without an assessment of their protection needs. It therefore is also intended to convince EU institutions and member states to stop Italy and Frontex from forcibly returning migrants to Libya where they are routinely subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and where potential refugees are not effectively protected.

Human Rights Watch was not able to see or interview those returned to Libya following the Italian interdictions, but bases this report on interviews with 91 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Italy and Malta conducted mostly in May 2009 and one telephone interview with a migrant detainee in Libya. Human Rights Watch visited Libya in April 2009 but the Libyan authorities would not permit us to interview anyone in public or private places without their express permission. The authorities also did not allow us to visit any of the many migrant detention centers in Libya, despite our repeated requests to do so.

This report looks at the burgeoning relationship between Italy and Libya, which has as one of its principal components an agreement to cooperate to stop the irregular flow of third country nationals through Libya and into Italy. Italy’s interdiction regime came quickly on the heels of a new treaty with Libya, “The Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between the Italian Republic and Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” (the “Friendship Pact”), signed on August 30, 2008. The Friendship Pact called for “intensifying” cooperation in “fighting terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration.” The two parties agreed to strengthen the border control system for Libyan land borders (50 percent funded by Italy with funding for the other 50 percent to be sought from the EU), and to use Italian companies in this endeavor.

The first tangible outcome of the Friendship Pact was Italy’s transfer of three patrol boats to Libya on May 14, 2009 that were to be jointly operated by Libyan and Italian authorities. At the launch ceremony, the Guardia di Finanza commander, Cosimo D’Arrigo, said that the boats “will be used in joint patrols in Libyan territorial water and international waters in conjunction with Italian naval operations.” He added that “members of the Libyan coast guard will also be stationed at our command station on the island of Lampedusa and will take part in patrols on our ships.”

Italy violates the international legal principle of nonrefoulement when it interdicts boats on the high seas and pushes them back to Libya with no screening whatsoever. Various international conventions bar governments from committing refoulement—the forced return of people to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened or where they would face a risk of torture. The principle of nonrefoulement is a binding obligation in international human rights law and international refugee law, as well as European and Italian law, which also forbid Italy from returning people to places where they would face inhuman and degrading treatment.