Gaddafi visit to Italy amid protest against countries’ ‘illegal migration’ agreement

Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi concludes his three-day visit to Italy on Friday, amid criticism from human rights groups of the irregular migration control co-operation between the two countries and attempts by Italy to “contract out” to Libya its obligations to provide protection to refugees and asylum seekers. Amnesty International has called on both countries to make human rights an integral part of migration control policies and to uphold the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. In August 2008, both countries agreed a Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Co-operation, including provision for bilateral efforts to combat “illegal migration” through joint patrolling of the sea. As part of the treaty, Italy has said it will compensate Libya for its 30-year occupation. The $5bn (£3bn) package involves construction projects, student grants and pensions for Libyan soldiers who served with the Italians during the Second World War. In return, Libya has agreed, amongst other things, to tighten control of its territorial and international waters and accept disembarkation on its soil of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees intercepted at sea by Italian vessels. Italy has been reported to have also undertaken to provide resources, including technology for control of migrant flows through the southern borders of Libya. “Italy and Libya should grant protection to those fleeing persecution and conflict, not treat them as mere commodities in deals which aim at avoiding international obligations with regards to the treatment of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees,” said Amnesty International. “Co-operation between the two countries cannot in effect be ‘contracting out’ to Libya the management of migration flows, especially not when Libya has a poor record when it comes to the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.” In 2008, there were allegations of the torture and other ill-treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers and migrants; which the Libyan authorities failed to investigate. Refugees and asylum-seekers were not afforded protection as required by international law, as Libya has no functioning asylum system. Against this backdrop, Italy has said it will forcibly return individuals setting off from Libya who are intercepted before they reach Italian shores. On 6 May, three vessels with an estimated 227 third-country nationals on board sent out distress calls while passing about 50 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. A dispute between the Maltese and Italian government over who had responsibility may have delayed rescue operations. Eventually, two Italian coastguard vessels took the migrants to Tripoli in Libya, without stopping in an Italian port. The Italian Minister of the Interior Roberto Maroni was reported to have called it “an historical achievement after one year of bilateral negotiations with Libya.” Further interceptions and returns have occurred: according to official information from the Ministry of the Interior in Italy, between 6 and 11 May, around 500 individuals including those from Somalia, Eritrea and other Sub-Saharan African countries were returned to Libya after being intercepted by Italian vessels at sea. The actions, however, constituted a breach of Italy’s obligations, including the duty not to send individuals to a country where they are at risk of persecution (the principle of non refoulement) and to provide access to a fair and satisfactory asylum procedure. These obligations stem from the fact that these individuals were under the effective control of the Italian authorities even though they did not step foot on Italian soil. The UN refugee agency criticized these actions and urged Italy “to ensure that people rescued at sea and in need of international protection receive full access to territory and asylum procedures.” On 14 May, the Italian government handed over to Libya three patrol boats to monitor its Mediterranean coastline in joint operations with the Italian Navy. A further three boats have been promised. From 15-23 May, a human rights fact-finding team from Amnesty International visited Libya –   the first such visit since 2004. During their time in Libya, Amnesty International delegates were only allowed to pay a brief visit to the Misratah Detention Centre, some 200 km from Tripoli, in which between 600 and 700  alleged irregular migrants mostly from other African countries are held in severely overcrowded conditions. Many have been detained since they were intercepted while seeking to make their way to Italy or other countries in southern Europe. Those held at Misratah may include refugees fleeing persecution, including Eritrean and Somali nationals; but as Libya has no asylum procedure and is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, foreign nationals, including those in need of international protection, may find themselves outside the protection of the law. There is also virtually no opportunity for detainees to lodge complaints of torture and other ill-treatment to competent judicial authorities or to challenge the grounds of their detention. Some of the Eritrean nationals, who comprise a sizeable proportion of those detained at Misratah, told Amnesty International that they had been held there for two years. In its meetings with government officials, Amnesty International expressed concern about the detention and alleged ill-treatment of hundreds, possibly thousands, of individuals whom the authorities assume to be irregular migrants, and urged them to put in place proper procedures to identify asylum seekers and refugees and afford them appropriate protection. Amnesty International also urged the Libyan authorities to cease forcible returns of individuals to their countries of origin where they might be at risk of serious human rights violations, and at the very least to find a better alternative to detention for those individuals whom they are not able to return to their countries of origin for this reason.