Over half the migrants who arrived in Catania deported in under a day
As ASGI feared in its statement on 27 October 2010, the explanation for the treatment reserved to the 131 migrants who arrived from Egypt on 26 October 2010 in Catania, held in the PalaNitta sports hall in the outskirts of town without UNHCR or other organisations authorised to provide legal assistance or to monitor their treatment being allowed to visit them, arrived in the evening of the following day when the interior ministry issued a press release that triumphantly announced the expulsion of 68 of them to Egypt.
A further 19 Egyptians were arrested for aiding and abetting illegal immigration, whereas the 44 minors on board, "all of them Egyptians", were sent to specialised facilities. The press statement added that "Today's repatriation, which was carried out only one day after the illegals were found, is a consequence of the excellent relationship of cooperation that have been established for some time with the Egyptian Authorities". Egypt and Italy signed a bilateral cooperation agreement for the repatriation of "illegal" migrants on 9 January 2007, as a consequence of which Italy granted Egyptian nationals some places in its quota system for the admission of foreign workers in exchange for fast-track readmission procedures.
The Italian government appears to be doing its best to illustrate what the problems connected to readmission agreements and the cooperation between EU member states and countries of transit or origin entail. In fact, UNHCR complained about the fact that it sought to find out details about the situation and wished to meet the people who had disembarked, without being allowed to do so. While recognising that police investigations required a degree of "reservedness", its statement on 27 October expressed its hope that:
"access will be granted to the organisations that participate in the Praesidium project (which involves UNHCR, the IOM, the Italian Red Cross and Save the Children, for the purpose of providing information and guidance to migrants arriving in Sicily, and to enable those who need it to seek international protection) and protection bodies before any decisions are adopted as to the migrants' legal status and possible measures for their removal from Italian territory".
Analysing the situation, the MeltingPot project, which works on immigration issues, described the repatriations as a "further chapter in the dismantling of the right to asylum", highlighting two areas in which the interior ministry strained the interpretation of its duties: not allowing international organisations and those participating in the Praesidium project to have any contact with the migrants, while it funds the project, in theory precisely for this purpose; and allowing the Guardia di Finanza (customs and excise police) to replace the Territorial Commission, which is the body which is competent to establish an asylum seeker's age or nationality, resulting in all of them being considered Egyptian nationals and in 68 of them being returned to the north African country. Questions remain over whether they were in fact all Egyptians (they reportedly claimed that they were Palestinians at first), whether any minors were repatriated (it is claimed that after originally stating that there were only 10 minors, 44 were recognised as being minors), and why all of them were denied access to representatives of UNHCR and other associations, thus denying any of them who may have needed to the possibility of applying for asylum.
ARCI complained that its request for its lawers to be granted access to the PalaNitta to inform the foreign nationals of their rights and the possibility of requesting international protection was first denied due to the "incompatibility of such informative activity with the investigations carried out by the judicial police on request from the prosecutor's office", before it was granted by the prosecuting magistrate on the morning of 27 October, without them being able to enter the facilities in any case, as the prefect's (prefetto, the government representative in charge of security) office representative said that the decision had been "reconsidered", without revealing any document that confirmed this.
Thus, the migrants who arrived were concealed from the view of civil society and bodies that are officially responsible for monitoring their conditions and status, thus stripping them of any guarantees or safeguards and neutralising applicable procedures. Operations to ensure that this was the case included two charges against members of local anti-racist groups who had gathered near the dock where the migrants were made to disembark, forcing them to disperse.
Moreover, figures released by the interior ministry indicate that repatriations (unless they are deportations, if some of the migrants were in fact Palestinians) of this kind have been frequent in recent weeks. In the week of 16 October 2010, "54 third-country nationals, mainly from Morocco, Algeria and Egypt were expelled"; on 5 October, "22 Egyptians were expelled in a charter flight from Rome to Cairo" when, as in the latest case, 21 of them had disembarked higher up the Tyrrenhian coast than usual near Latina (Lazio) on the previous day; on 20 and 29 September, "55 Egyptians left Catania towards Cairo in two charter flights", who were part of a group of 82 people who had disembarked on the coast near Catania. Even this week, the foreigners returned on 27 October was not the first expulsion as "22 other Egyptians" were also expelled "during this week on several regular airline flights". Moreover, in the week of 9 October, "on several flights, 26 third-country nationals, in particular Tunisians, Moroccans and Ghanaians were repatriated". Between 14 and 22 October, 34 Algerians who had disembarked on the coasts of Sardinia were expelled to Algeria.There was also a joint charter flight that left for Lagos from Rome on 22 October, carrying 36 Nigerians, 28 of them expelled from Italy, five from Malta and three from Norway.
"Immigrazione clandestina, rimpatriati 68 cittadini egiziani", interior ministry press statement, 27.10.2010
Interior ministry data on returns in October 2010 [drawn from Migreurop website, below],
"Negato l'accesso a 128 migranti sbarcati a Catania", UNHCR press statement, 27.10.2010
"Catania: la Prefettura impedisce agli enti di tutela l'accesso al Palanitta dove sono trattenuti i migranti sbarcati martedì", ARCI press statement, 27.10.2010
"Arrivée des boat people en Catania", Migreurop, 27.10.2010
"Catania - In volo i 68 migranti "rimpatriati". A fondo il diritto d'asilo", MeltingPot, Nicola Grigion, 28.10.2010
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