Italy Pressed for Answers on Migrant Returns to Hellish Camps in Libya

The Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights has asked Italy to explain the migration deal it has struck with Libya.

Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks has written to Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti seeking clarification on the deployment of Italian naval ships in Libyan waters. The ships are intended to boost the North African country's efforts to combat people smuggling.

This follows a series of deals signed by Libya and Italy, including a deal with the Libyan Coast Guard for joint operations with the Italian Navy in Libyan waters in an effort to cut the number of migrants landing on Italian shores. The Italian government has also asked Libyan militias to help cut off migrant flows in exchange for money and logistical support.

'Real risk of torture'

In his letter to the Italian interior minister, Muiznieks asked how Italy intends to guarantee the safeguard of migrants intercepted in Libyan territorial waters and sent back to the hellish detention camps in the country. Muiznieks specifically wanted to know "what safeguards Italy has put in place to ensure" that intercepted migrants are not subject to torture or inhuman treatment.

The commissioner stressed this point: "In light of recent reports from the United Nations and various non-governmental organisations on the current human rights situation of migrants in Libya, which paint a picture that is, in my view, no less disturbing than in 2012, handing over individuals to the Libyan authorities or other groups in Libya would expose them to real risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

Furthermore, the human rights commissioner asked Italy whether, "In light of the recently adopted Code of Conduct for non-governmental organisations involved in migrants’ rescue operations at sea, […] measures to ensure that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean can continue to be carried out effectively and in safety."

The commissioner also reminded Italy that the state was found to have violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights in 2012, when it returned intercepted migrants to Libya, and stressed out how "the fact that such actions would be carried out in Libyan territorial waters does not absolve Italy from its obligations under the convention."

Italy walking a tightrope?

Shortly afterwards, Minister of the Interior Minniti sent his reply letter to the Commissioner Muiznieks. The reply clearly shows Minniti walking a tightrope on the issue, argues Matteo Villa, head of ISPI migration program. Minniti indeed claimed that no Italian ship, Navy or otherwise, ever took part in refoulement activities to Libya. His reply stressed that Italy's cooperation with Libyan authorities aims at capacity building, not at carrying out refoulments.

The message Minniti intended to deliver was that because Italy is not actually handling the intercepted migrants, it could not be held responsible for any wrongful forced return.

Minniti also stressed that "Italy does not underestimate the respect of human rights in Libya and, instead, considers it crucial to the point of making it an essential part of the overall strategy developed by by the government."

Despite these words, his letter contained no clear reference to any concrete safeguards put in place by the Italian government to ensure that no one is exposed to the risk of torture or ill-treatment of any kind. It also gave no answer is given to the commissioner’s question on the Code of Conduct for non-governmental organisations and on the "efficacy and safety" of their operations.