By Sabina Zaccaro
ROME, Sep 21 (IPS) – “They beat us. They beat everyone, men and women. They usually beat us in the same room where we were kept. But they took some people out of the room. Not me, but they took other women out of the room.”
Nadifa*, a 19-year-old from Somalia, was among 91 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in May 2009. She had been detained in Kufra, southeast Libya for 20 days before sailing to Italy.
The report, “Pushed Back, Pushed Around: Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers,” released by HRW Monday, tells a harrowing tale about the treatment of migrants in Libya through the testimony of those who have managed to reach Italy and Malta.
The report also criticises Italy’s practice of intercepting boats full of migrants on the high seas and sending them back to Libya without the required screening.
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of irregular boat migrants arriving in Italy from North Africa rose from 19,900 in 2007 to 36,000 in 2008, an 89.4 percentage increase. Italy also received 31,164 new asylum applications in 2008, an increase of 122 percent from the 14,053 asylum applicants in 2007.
A cooperation agreement reached between Italy and Libya in May instituted a practice of towing boats intercepted in international waters back to Libya without determining whether some of those aboard might be refugees, sick or injured, pregnant women, unaccompanied children, or victims of trafficking or other forms of violence against women, HRW charges.
On the surface, the policy has been successful. In the first week after the interdiction programme began, about 500 people in boats were summarily returned to Libya, according to HRW.
This triggered a remarkable reduction in the number of boats attempting the journey across the Mediterranean. In the following eight weeks, only 400 people were interdicted and returned; irregular migration by boat to Sicily and Sardinia fell by 55 percent in the first six months of 2009 compared to the same period the previous year.
But HRW says Italy is acting in violation of the country’s legal obligation not to commit refoulement – the forcible return of people to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened or where they would face a risk of torture.
“Italy is sending people back to abuse,” Bill Frelick, HRW refugee policy director and author of the report told IPS. “All migrants we interviewed, who had been detained in Libya, told us about brutal treatment and overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.”
Many of those interviewed by HRW said women are regularly taken away from the detainees’ group and sexually assaulted.
Madihah*, a 24-year-old Eritrean woman who was held in the Libyan migrant detention centres of Al Fellah and Misrata said, “All of the women had problems from the police. The police came at night and chose ladies to violate.”
HRW urges the government of Italy to immediately stop interdicting and summarily returning boat migrants to Libya. It should also stop cooperating with the Libyan authorities on the interdiction of migrants trying to leave Libya.
The Italian Interior Ministry did not have immediate comment responding to the Human Rights Watch report, although Frelick told IPS that a meeting with government officials is scheduled for Sep 22.
The report also urges the European Union – currently negotiating the Libya-EU Framework Agreement – to ensure that Libya ends the arbitrary detention of migrants and “that conditions of detention conform to international minimum standards.”
The respect of the rights of asylum seekers and migrants should be a condition for any cooperation on migration-control schemes, the report says, “in order to protect detained migrants from physical abuse, including sexual and gender-based violence, and hold police and other officials accountable for any abuses.”
* Names in the report were changed to protect identities