Migrants’ return to Libya by Italian boat could breach international law – UN


Angela Giuffrida – The Guardian

Vessel may have broken international law by returning 108 people rescued from Mediterranean to Tripoli

An operation in which an Italian towboat rescued more than 100 people in the Mediterranean and returned them to Libya may have been in breach of international law, the United Nations has said.

According to the Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms, the Asso 28, an oil rig support vessel, rescued 108 people from international waters on Monday and took them to Libya, their country of departure.

If confirmed, this would constitute a breach of international law, under which migrants rescued in international waters cannot be returned to a place where their lives are put in danger. Both the United Nations and European Union have acknowledged that Libya is not safe.

The Proactiva Open Arms claim was supported by Nicola Fratoianni, an Italian politician with Free and Equal, a small leftwing party, who was onboard the Proactiva rescue ship.

Italy’s coastguard said Asso 28’s rescue activities had taken place in Libyan waters, not international waters, and were “carried out under the coordination of the Libyan coastguard, which managed the whole operation”. The Libyan coastguard was not immediately available for comment.

A Proactiva spokeswoman, Laura Lanuza, said its members learned the rescue occurred in international waters because their boat was nearby and they could listen to radio communications between the Italian ship and the Libyan authorities.

A spokesman for the UN migration agency told Reuters it could not establish the location of the rescue. He said the agency was still investigating the case but confirmed the return of the migrants to Libya.

The UN refugee agency said on Twitter the operation “could represent a violation of international law”.

Two weeks ago Italy assured Germany that it would continue to accept migrants rescued at sea until an EU-wide plan on redistributing people across the continent was established. The pledge came after high-profile moves by Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and leader of the far-right League, to block rescue ships from docking at Italian ports.

In response to Proactiva on Tuesday, Salvini made no mention of the involvement of an Italian ship in the incident. He wrote on Twitter: “The Libyan coastguard has rescued and brought back 611 immigrants in recent hours. The NGOs protest and the traffickers lose business? Fine, we’ll continue in this direction!”

In another post, on Facebook, he wrote: “The Italian coastguard has not coordinated and participated in any of these operations, as falsely declared by a foreign NGO and a poorly informed leftist MP.”

Almost 350 people were taken back to Libya, a major point of departure for those seeking to make it to Europe, overnight on 30 July, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Under a controversial pact between Italy and Libya, the latter’s coastguard has the authority to rescue people at sea and bring them back to the country.

Annex:

Italian boat accused of breaking law by taking migrants to Libya

Agence France Presse

in the Mediterranean said Tuesday that an Italian boat may have violated international law by taking more than 100 migrants it had saved back to Libya.

The Asso Ventotto, an Italian offshore supply ship, picked up 108 migrants in international waters late Monday.

They were found on a dinghy around 60 nautical miles northwest of Libya’s capital Tripoli, according to a maritime traffic site.

Local media reported that Italy’s coastguard instructed the Asso Ventotto to coordinate the rescue operation with the Libyan authorities.

The boat then transported those aboard to a port in Tripoli.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Italy tweeted: “Libya is not a safe port and this could lead to a violation of international law,” adding that they were collecting “all the necessary information on the case.”

German NGO Sea-Watch also condemned “the first pushback by an Italian vessel for years,” on Twitter.

In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy violated human rights by sending migrants intercepted at sea back to Libya in 2009.

The court said the practice violated international obligations to not return individuals to countries where they could be at risk of human rights abuses.

Many migrants trying to reach Europe are desperate not to go back to Libya, where they have been reported to face abuse and rape in detention centers.

Up until recently, the Italian coastguard led rescue missions and the migrants were taken to Italy.

However Italy’s new populist government, in power since June, has taken a hardline stance on immigration and ordered the coastguard to let Libyan authorities take charge of such operations.

As NGOs expressed their dismay over the latest boat controversy, Italy’s far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini, who has closed the country’s ports to migrant rescue ships, praised the Libyan authorities.

“Over the last hours the Libyan coastguard has saved and brought back 611 immigrants to Libya,” he tweeted.

“NGOs protest and traffickers lose their business? Well, we are going on like this!” he said with his signature hashtags “#Closedports, #Openhearts.”

However the speaker of Italy’s lower house, Roberto Fico, who belongs to the Five Star Movement that governs in a coalition with Salvini’s League, appeared to disagree with sending migrants to Libya.

“Libya is not a safe place. … It is clear that you cannot leave migrants there,” Fico said as he met with protesters denouncing the sale of Italian boats to Libya’s coastguard on Monday.

Several commercial ships that have tried to take rescued migrants to Italy — as was standard procedure under the former center-left government — have found themselves blocked by Salvini’s policy and stranded for days at sea searching for a port where they can disembark.