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Rights group claims Italy, Libya violating international law on refugee treatment

[JURIST] Italy systematically forces migrants to return to Libya where they face human rights abuses without screening them for possible asylum claims, according to a report [text, PDF; press release] released Monday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website]. The report found that Italy often intercepts migrants traveling by boat from Libya and fails to screen migrants for potential refugee status before returning the migrants to Libya. This policy, according to the report, violates a number of international agreements and norms including Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights [text] and the principle of non-refoulement [CW backgrounder]. Some of those interviewed for the report accused Italian troops of using excessive force, confiscating personal items and documents, and failing to offer food to the migrants. Upon being returned to Libya, the report found that migrants often face prolonged confinement and abuse. The report recommends that Libya overhaul its refugee detention system and investigate claims of abuse. Until such time, the report recommends that Italy cease to intercept migrants from Libya and make sure each migrant has a chance to present his or her case for asylum. The report also called on the European Union and other European institutions to ensure Italy's compliance with EU law and to pressure Libya to improve its treatment of refugees.

Illegal immigration is an increasing problem [BBC report] in Italy that resulted in approximately 36,000 people arriving by boat last year, mostly from Africa. In May, the lower house of Italy's parliament passed a bill [JURIST report] increasing penalties for illegal immigration. Also in May, the Italian government sent 227 migrants back to Libya [AFP report] without asylum hearings in violation of the UN Refugee Convention [text]. The UN Refugee Agency [official website] has urged Italian authorities to reconsider their position, pointing out that Libya is not a member of the UN Refugee Convention and is lacking a functional asylum system. HRW criticized the actions, maintaining that returning the migrants to Libya put them at risk for harm and inhumane treatment. In November, UN human rights experts expressed concern [JURIST report] for Italy's treatment of detained migrants and asylum seekers. The issues raised in Monday's report echo many of those raised by a similar HRW report [text; JURIST report] in 2006.

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