UN investigating case of asylum-seekers sent back to Libya by Italy

14 July 2009

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is looking into the cases of dozens of asylum-seekers who were returned to Libya by Italian authorities after they were intercepted in the Mediterranean Sea.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is looking into the cases of dozens of asylum-seekers who were returned to Libya by Italian authorities after they were intercepted in the Mediterranean Sea.

Based on its interviews in Libyan detention centres with 82 people intercepted on 1 July some 30 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa, UNHCR staff said that it does not appear that the Italian Navy made any attempt to determine their nationality or their reason for fleeing.

Of those trying to reach Italy, 76 were from Eritrea, including nine women and at least six children. “Based on UNHCR’s assessment of the situation in Eritrea and our interviews with the people themselves, it is clear that a significant number from this group are in need of international protection,” agency spokesperson Ron Redmond said today.

UNHCR staff also heard disturbing accounts of force being used by Italian personnel during their transfer to the vessel carrying them back to Libya, with six Eritreans requiring medical attention as a result. Those attempting to flee to Italy also said that personal items, including vital documents, were seized by the Italian Navy and have yet to be returned.

“Those interviewed spoke of their distress after four days at sea and said that the Italian Navy did not offer them any food during the 12-hour operation to return them to Libya,” Mr. Redmond said.

Due to these serious allegations, UNHCR has sent a letter to the Italian Government requesting information on the treatment of people sent back to Libya and asking that international norms be requested.

In recent years, Italy has rescued thousands of people in distress in the Mediterranean Sea, providing assistance to those in need, the agency spokesperson said. But since early May, when a new push-back policy was unveiled, at least 900 people trying to reach Italy have been sent back to Libya and other countries.

“UNHCR has expressed serious concerns about the impact of this new policy which, in the absence of adequate safeguards, can prevent access to asylum and undermines the international principle of non-refoulement,” Mr. Redmond said.

 

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