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UN agency welcomes court decision on responsibility to migrants at sea

Photo: UNHCR/A. Di Loreto (file photo)
UNHCR/A. Di Loreto (file photo)
Photo: UNHCR/A. Di Loreto (file photo)

UN agency welcomes court decision on responsibility to migrants at sea

A court decision that found Italy was wrong to intercept and return a boatload of African migrants without first determining whether this would jeopardize their lives is a turning point regarding national responsibilities to migrants, the United Nations refugee agency said today.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a statement welcoming what it called the “landmark” judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, sitting in Strasbourg, France, in the case known as Hirsi Jamaa and Others v Italy, in which the agency acted as an intervener.

The court ruled that Italy’s decision to intercept and return the boatload of migrants to Libya in 2009, without examining whether this constituted a real risk to their lives, violated its obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights.

A group of Somali and Eritrean passengers on the boat had taken the case to the court.

UNHCR said the judgment “provides important guidance to European States in their border control and interception practices, representing a turning point regarding State responsibilities and the management of mixed migration flows.”

During the case, UNHCR had highlighted the obligation of States to not forcibly return people where they face persecution or serious harm – otherwise known as the “non-refoulement principle.”

The agency told the court that, given the situation prevailing in Libya in 2008, so-called “push-back” policies undermined this principle.

“UNHCR appreciates the challenges that irregular migration poses to Italy and other EU [European Union] countries and acknowledges the significant efforts made by Italy and other States to save lives in their search and rescue operations,” the statement stressed.

“UNHCR advises that people rescued or intercepted at sea are, very often, more vulnerable than other asylum-seekers, both physically and psychologically, and therefore unable to declare their intention to apply for asylum immediately after their interception at sea. UNHCR recommends that border control measures should provide for access to the territory of persons in need of international protection.”