Italy-Libya: Submission on May refoulements to Libya to the European Commission and UN Human Rights Commissioner

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On 16 June 2009, sixteen NGOs submitted a document to the European Commission and the UN's Human Rights Commissioner that details the breaches of Italian, EU and international law that were committed by Italian authorities when migrants on boats that were intercepted by the Italian navy during patrol operations in international waters beyond the limits of Libyan territorial waters were returned to the north African country.

The document by Lorenzo Trucco, the president of ASGI (Associazione di Studi Giuridici sull'Immigrazione), dismisses claims by the Italian interior minister who stated that the operation, whereby around 500 would-be migrants were returned to Libya from 7 to 10 May 2009 after being taken on board of Italian ships without any verifications as to their nationality or intention to submit asylum applications being carried out, was both "historical" (in a positive sense regarding co-operation with Libya) and "legitimate". In particular, it highlights breaches including a failure to identify the migrants or possible situations requiring special care (pregnancy, minors, nationalities from which many asylum applications have been received and/or accepted), the fact that once they were taken on board the Italian ships they were effectively on Italian territory and hence should have been subject to Italian jurisdiction, and that a high number (75%) of those arriving by sea had submitted applications in 2008, 50% of which had been accepted.

It argues that the non-refoulement principle, which is also applicable in international waters, was contravened through refusals of entry and returns that did not involve the issuing of expulsion or refusal of entry orders by a questore (police chief) or access to appeal procedures, that laws on assistance at sea oblige authorities to assist rescued people by taking them to a safe place, a description that does not apply to Libyan territory in view of well-documented abuses against "illegal" migrants in Libya, both in detention centres and during expulsions from the country. The collective expulsion of foreigners, a failure to respect people's dignity during border checks, which should always involve minimum checks to identify them, with refusals of entry resulting from a substantiated decision, are all presented as instances in which different instruments including the European Convention on Human Rights, EU Regulations and Directives, and the Italian immigration law and Constitution were contravened.

In conclusion, the document calls upon the bodies to which it is addressed to condemn Italy for the human rights violations it enacted, for infringement procedures to be initiated for violating Directive 2005/85/EC as regards "the right to effective access to procedure for international protection" and "Regulation (EC) no. 562/2006 and subsequent modifications for having arranged the collective return of an unspecified number of migrants to Libya without having previously adopted written orders explaining their reasons and without having allowed appeals before a jurisdictional authority". Further controls and explanations are sought as to the agreements between Italy and Libya in this field, and their compliance with EU and international law.

The full-text of the submission (in Italian) is available at:

English translation

On 14 July 2009, UNHCR complained about the conditions experienced by 82 would-be migrants returned to Libya by Italy after being intercepted at sea 30 miles away from Lampedusa on 1 July 2009. They included 76 Eritrean citizens, nine of them women and six children, whose nationality was not established and UNHCR stated that it "appears clear" that a "significant number of them needed international protection". Testimonies were collected concerning the use of force by Italian military personnel resulting in six receiving medical care due to their injuries, the confiscation of personal effects without these being returned, and the failure to provide any food for them during the 12-hour operation.

After stressing that Italy has saved thousands of lives over the last few years, offering assistance and protection to those needing it, it noted that at least 900 people have been refused entry and sent back, primarily to Libya, since this new practice started in May of this year. Following the statement, the Italian government criticised UNHCR forcefully, as it had following the complaints that resulted from the first such operations in May. The minister for Community policies, Andrea Ronchi, stated that UNHCR should be ashamed and apologise to Italy for making the allegations without checking what it had been told with the Italian authorities. Ronchi claimed that the charges were "reckless, false, demagogic, offensive and repugnant, offending our armed forces that display their morality, commitment, humanity, competence and sacrifice throughout the world every day".


- "UNHCR interviews migrants pushed back to Libya", 14.7.2009, available at:
- Corriere della Sera 14.7.2009.
- Background: "UNHCR deeply concerned over returns from Italy to Libya", 7.5.2009, available at:

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