Hotspot Italy: Abuses of refugees and migrants

Thousands of people continue to cross the Mediterranean, fleeing persecution, conflict and poverty, seeking protection and a decent life in Europe.

Europe’s so-called ‘hotspot approach’ to receive refugees and migrants in key arrival countries like Italy was introduced in 2015, as a way to faster identify, screen and filter all newly arrived men, women and children.

But Amnesty International’s research suggests that, in Italy, there are cases where it’s less ‘identify, screen and filter’ and more a case of ‘abuse, mislead and expel’. 

I can’t say how painful it was… I would have never thought that in Italy they could do something like that to me.

Adam, 27, from Darfur in Sudan

As thousands of refugees and migrants attempt to pass through Italy without being identified in order to seek asylum in other countries, Amnesty has been given consistent accounts of coercive methods used by the Italian police to obtain fingerprints, including allegations of beatings, electric shocks and sexual humiliation.

Hasty screening of people who have just stepped off the boats and are still traumatized, without giving them proper advice or information, risks denying them the ability to seek asylum and the protections they are legally entitled to.

Furthermore, Europe’s emphasis on expelling more people – even if this involves making agreements with governments who are known abusers of human rights – is resulting in people being sent back to places where they risk facing torture or other serious human rights violations. 

Solving the refugee crisis starts with one clear statement: I welcome refugees.

Instead of tackling one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of our time, our governments are closing their eyes and turning away. Instead of finding solutions, they’re letting fear and racism poison public debate.

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Hotspot Italy

How EU’s flagship approach leads to violations of refugee and migrant rights.

Ill-treated for a fingerprint

Fingerprinting is a key step for Europe to identify people arriving on its shores. Europe’s Dublin Regulation, under which countries can return asylum-seekers to the first EU country they entered, relies on fingerprinting to identify who arrived where.

Prior to mid-2015 Italy had limited success in obtaining fingerprints from people who refused because they wanted to claim asylum in other countries, to the dismay of other European governments. 

So the EU implemented a new approach and imposed a 100% fingerprinting target on Italy, including recommending the use of force where necessary to obtain them. Meeting this target has pushed Italian authorities to the limits – and beyond – of what is permissible under international human rights law.

European governments had agreed to redistribute some of the arriving asylum-seekers to other EU member states, to relieve the pressure on Italy. But they have so far failed to uphold this commitment and have relocated only a small number of asylum-seekers.

Excessive use of force

During 2016 Amnesty International received a significant number of reports of excessive use of force by police during fingerprinting of refugees and migrants, including women and unaccompanied children.

Some alleged being subjected to torture to coerce them to give their fingerprints: this included beatings, being shocked by electrical batons and sexual humiliation or infliction of pain to the genitals.

Amnesty International has informed the Italian Ministry of Interior of these reports and urged the Ministry to respond to the allegations.

They gave me electricity with a stick, many times… I was too weak, I couldn’t resist…they took both my hands and put them on the machine.

Djoka, 16, from Sudan

Asladain, 19, from Ethiopia

I said I didn’t want [to give my fingerprints], but they forced me… They slapped me on the face, I don’t know how many times.

New screening, fewer guarantees

Try to imagine it: you’ve fled your home, maybe been separated from family and friends, undertaken a dangerous and exhausting journey in terrible conditions, then risked your life during a perilous sea crossing, typically after months in Libya where detention, kidnappings, torture and rape are endemic. Then – the very minute it’s over – you’re asked to make crucial decisions which will affect the course of your life, without understanding fully what is being asked of you.

This is what refugees and migrants face upon arrival in Italy. They are screened as soon as they step off the boats, day or night. Many are scared of the police and in shock or extremely weak, and have only been given limited access to information on asylum procedures.

They are asked the wrong questions at the wrong time and given insufficient access to legal advice.

I don’t even know how we got here, I was crying … I saw so many police, I was scared…I was asked for name, surname, nationality… But my mind was far, I couldn’t even remember the name of my parents.

Ada, 29, from Nigeria

Mariam, 23, from Sudan, pregnant with small children

It was raining… the children were soaked… At that time I was also bleeding. They told me that if I didn’t give my fingerprints they would not let us in.

Expulsions at any cost

This flawed screening leads to some people being classed as ‘irregular migrants’ and given orders to leave, although they may well have grounds to claim asylum.

Furthermore, encouraged by the EU, Italy is increasingly engaging in dangerous bilateral deals with third countries that allow people to be returned to places where they may be at risk of serious human rights abuses.

A new agreement was signed by the Italian and Sudanese police authorities in August 2016, deepening the cooperation between the two countries regarding migrant flows and borders, including on the repatriation of irregular Sudanese migrants.

While the agreement does not permit the return of someone who has requested asylum in Italy, the identification process required is so superficial that could lead to the rapid transfer to Sudan of people who, though not having submitted a request for asylum in Italy, nonetheless risk facing severe human rights violations if returned. This deal must be scrapped.

Italian authorities must ensure that people are only sent back after a proper assessment of the risks they would face, and that no-one is returned to somewhere they will face persecution, torture or other serious human rights violations.

Yaqoub, 23, from Darfur in Sudan

We were shackled and accompanied by Italian police… We arrived at Khartoum airport… we were interrogated one by one… Now I am afraid if the security is searching for me.

Recommendations to Italian authorities

  • Ensure that refugees and migrants are not subjected to excessive use of force, torture or other ill-treatment, or arbitrary detention by law enforcement officers during fingerprinting and other related operations.
  • No screening should take place immediately after asylum-seekers arrive; they should first be provided with the necessary assistance, information and advice on the process.
  • Any expulsions should be based on fair and informed screening and individual assessments, and no-one should be sent back to countries where they are at risk of serious human rights violations.

The hotspot approach has increased, not reduced, the burden on front-line states to police borders, protect asylum-seekers and keep irregular migrants out. This is leading to human rights violations for which Italian authorities have a direct responsibility, and EU leaders a political one.

There is a broader need for Europe to share responsibility for protecting refugees and not shift the burden onto receiving countries like Italy.

Europe also needs to create safe and legal routes so that people do not feel forced to make perilous sea crossings and put their lives in the hands of smugglers to seek safety.