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On May 6th, 2009, the first repatriation of illegal immigrants found in international waters south of Lampedusa took place.  The migrants were returned to Libya.

On the morning of the 7th of May, 3 Italian military patrol boats (two belonging to the coast guard and one to the financial police), arrived in the commercial harbor of Tripoli.  Apart from the ship's crews, representatives of the Italian State were present at the harbor. They were direct witnesses of the scarce respect of the Libyans for human and humanitarian rights.  Other witnesses present on that morning:  two French journalists that - authorized by the general command of the financial police – had been on board the Italian patrol boat named “Bovienzio” for two weeks.  One of these was  Fran´┐Żois De Labarre for Paris Match who will later describe what he saw in a news article (published on “Migrante”, June 15th 2009).

Less than human beings.

On that day, faced with the immigrants' initial resistance to disembark once realized that they weren't in Italy but in Libya, the Libyan personnel (military and civilian), proceeded immediately to the use of force.  In an indiscriminate and abusive way and with excessive brutality.

The use of sticks (wooden oars were also used), whips, punches and kicks, pushes and shoves to force the immigrants to disembark and to be placed inside containers loaded on trucks.  On one side the women (in a smaller container), on the other the men (the larger one).  Three pregnant women were left on the pavement because they were not able to walk.  A few of the immigrants were dehydrated and were also left on the pavement only to be later picked up and thrown inside the containers with the others.  It was like a horror movie, yet it was just a taste of what the immigrants would have to face in the following days and months, this time away from the eyes of witnesses and in the hands of their jail-keepers.

The three Italian vessels.

On May 20th 2009 three patrol boats of the financial guard arrived in Libya to take part in joint Italian-Libyan operations to counter illegal immigration (the boats were docked in the harbor of Zuwarah).  From this moment on the rejection of immigrants at sea became a routine.

The only difference with the May 7th repatriation being that the transfer of the immigrants from the Italian military boats (if they found them first) to the Libyan boats took place prevalently in the open sea.  The patrol boats would take care that their intervention always take place in international waters (be they in the SAR - Search and Rescue – jurisdiction of Italy, Libya or Malta).  The 3 patrol boats operated under the Libyan command with a Libyan flag.  On board the boats there were Italian financial police personnel (1 official and 14 financial police agents had arrived in Tripoli for the task) that was to act as “observer” and assist in logistics.

Silvio Berlusconi and Muhammar Ghaddafi

From May 2009 to December of that same year, over 1000 illegal immigrants would be repatriated, almost all of them would be taken back to Libya by the Italian-Libyan patrol boats.  In spite of these measures, in the same period of time about 1600 illegal immigrants would manage to make their way to Lampedusa.  Yet altogether the rejection policy decreased the flow of illegal immigrants going from Libya to Italy, and that was exactly the result that the Italian government wanted to achieve.

With the arrival of the patrol boats from Italy immigrant rejection techniques were refined:  The patrol boats would receive data on the location of the immigrant boats from Italy.  The Italian-Libyan patrol boats would them adopt an evasive tactic:  they would approach immigrant boats while concealing the Libyan flag (the boats themselves were Italian and thus would not alarm the immigrants).  The Italian personnel would approach the immigrants at first, while the Libyans (who would wear civilian clothes) remained silent (so as to trick the immigrant into thinking he/she was on an Italian vessel).  The immigrants would then be transferred one by one from one boat to the other, women first, who would be taken below deck.  Then the men would be transferred aboard.  They would be taken to the opposite side of the boat, away from the sight of their travel companions, and would then be handcuffed one by one (in at least one case an immigrant tried to escape by jumping in the water but was soon recovered and handcuffed).

Thus, one at a time all the men would be transferred on board the patrol boat and handcuffed.  The women would not be handcuffed but would instead be locked below deck.  In this way the patrol boat would be able to return to Zuwarah or Tripoli where the immigrants would be turned over to Libyan authorities.  When the immigrants would realize that they were being returned to Libya, it would be too late for them to react.  There lingered  a guilty silence over what happened after the immigrants' were turned over to the Libyans. (It must be stated, though, that the trick used by the patrol boat to return the immigrants to Libya was necessary for security reasons.  The crew of a patrol boat is comprised of 14-15 men while the carried immigrants were picked up in groups of 80-100 at a time.  The risk of a mutiny during the transfer or during the return trip to Libya was quite high).

Misratah Detention Center in Libya

The practice was condemned by the European Court.

Because of this “rejection” policy, on February 23rd 2012 Italy was found guilty by the European Court of Strasbourg and condemned to pay compensation (14.000 euro each) to 24 immigrants (13 Eritreans and 11 Somalis – two of which have meanwhile died) out of the 210 immigrants that were repatriated on May 7th and who appealed to the European Court with the support of the CIR (Italian Council for Refugees) of the former union leader Savino Pezzotta.

The Strasbourg sentence refers to the violation of the Convention for Human Rights regarding inhumane and degrading treatment, the risks that deportation entails for illegal immigrants and the policy of collective expulsions in general.

Italy's defense was to state that “Libya is a secure place”, and that “Tripoli respects the international duties on access to asylum”.  None of the various witnesses, some more unforthcoming than others, could corroborate this thesis (the Ministry of Defense was surely informed by the crews of the coast guard patrol boats and the military attache.  The Interior Ministry through the crew of the financial police patrol boat and it's representatives in Tripoli – the Embassy and its personnel).  Even the reiterated statements (by the Italian Interior Ministry and its provisional Minister) that in the successive repatriations the immigrants would have a chance to apply for political asylum, were lies.  Who would receive their applications?  How?  How were the nationalities of the immigrants ascertained?  Also, the immigrants were not aware that they were being taken back to Libya.

Human Rights violations reported.

Amnesty International raised many questions about the repatriations, as did U.N.H.C.R. and Human Rights Watch, but none of these convinced Italy to ask Libya about the fate of the repatriated migrants, or that there be a better handling of them by the part of their jail-keepers and better quality of detention.
From the 7th of May 2009 on, every time that an immigrant repatriation took place, no information  regarding the immigrants returned to Libyan authorities was ever offered.  Worse yet, none was ever requested by Italian authorities.

This policy was implemented up until February 26, 2011, when Italy – following the beginning of the Libyan civil war – revoked all bilateral accords.  Presently, contacts with the new Libyan government are being taken to re-enact the co-operation in the immigration sector.  Functionaries of the Italian Interior Ministry are again stationed in Tripoli.  There are on-going verifications taking place to evaluate the damage done to the patrol boats that were given to Libya at the time (thus the idea of re-enacting this specific bilateral co-operation).  For the time being the flow of immigrants coming from Libya has greatly decreased in part due to the fact that the sub-Saharan illegal immigrants present in Libya run the risk of being taken for the many colored mercenaries that have fought on Ghaddafi's side.


But what really happened to those that were shipped back to Libya?

Once taken back to Libya, the repatriated immigrants were emprisoned in one of the many identification and expulsion centers operating in the country.  These were overcrowded structures where promiscuity reigned among disastrous hygienic conditions, no medical assistance, no registration of those interned, no degree of justice or possibility of an appeal.  All of it was topped off by the daily abuses (beatings, rapes, cases of pedophilia, tortures).  The illegal immigrants were jailed by the Libyan police that decided, arbitrarily and discretionally, when to free the captives.

In December 2009 mandate was given to some Libyan jurists to study a law that could regulate the matter by creating the crime of “clandestinity”.    The law – that was never completed, approved or implemented – would have introduced the possibility of judgement of the illegal immigrant by the prosecutor, who would have had three alternatives:  sentence the immigrant to time in prison (so at least the prisoner would know how long he would stay there), sentence the immigrant to a fine or order that the person be expelled from Libya.  This new law – and this was the real danger – could have determined the fact that after corrupting prison guards or the police to get out of jail, the immigrant would have yet another mouth to feed.

The crime of clandestinity had been introduced in that same period of time in Italy as well (law n. 94/09, 07.15.2009) and one cannot exclude a connection between the two initiatives (the Italian law would be later rejected by the European Court of Justice because it was “in contrast with the European directives on the repatriation of illegal immigrants” and had already received negative opinions by the Italian constitutional court and court of cassation).

The repatriations continued undisturbed until 2011, but even now...

Either way, the operations at sea of the Italian-Libyan patrol boats continued undisturbed from May 2009 to the beginning of 2011.  The boats given to Libya have now increased to 6 and the personnel of the Italian Financial police stationed in Libya has also been proportionally increased.  The presence of Italian military personnel on board the patrol boats was meant to be a deterrent for abuses and mistreating on the part of the Libyan military.  This thesis proved partially untrue when the U.N.H.C.R., in July 2009, officially reported cases of mistreatment undergone by immigrants on board a vessel of the Italian navy (the “Orion”) that had picked up a boatful of illegal immigrants in international waters on July 1st 2009.  In that particular case the immigrants had also been searched and the things that were confiscated from them were put in bags and handed over to the Libyan military.  Of course the immigrants' things disappeared (about the presumed mistreating it must be said that the Italian navy generally filmed all assistance/boarding operations at sea and that there would thus be documental proof in defense of the Italian ship.  It must also be noted that the illegal immigrants often tend to emphasize sufferance and tribulation in order to strengthen their request for asylum).

The truth is that in this mechanism of co-operation between the two countries, if Italy were to object to the treatment of the immigrants after their repatriation, Libya could have just refused to take the immigrants back.  This could be an element that justifies the behavior of the Italian government but also – on ethical terms – an aggravating circumstance.

Lately, on board the patrol boats, apart from the Libyan coast guard crew and the Italian “observers” there were also – dressed in civilian clothes – functionaries of the Libyan police whom – during the trip – would question the illegal immigrants on the details of their journey and on the identities of their traffickers.


Italy, Libya and Human Rights.

Ghaddafi's Libya had never signed Conventions on human rights nor had they ever recognized the status of refugee or the right to political asylum.  Thus, on juridic terms, Libya could – differently from Italy – act with more liberty.  Nevertheless Libya was bothered by the international accusations and had developed an accentuated susceptibility over the matter.  It was thus more prudent, from the Italian point of view – and for mere political convenience – to leave the matter alone.  It wasn't certainly an ethical nor moral problem for Libya – after over 40 years of a bloody dictatorship – to be accused of mistreating illegal immigrants.  There was no public opinion with which one could confront oneself.  The Italian situation was, of course, different.

Italy then tried to wipe away the burden of wrongdoing by resurrecting an old project.  It financed simultaneously the construction of 3 centers for the assistance of immigrants in the Libyan locations of Gharyan, Kufrah and Sebha. Yet Italy never actually completed these centers for fear that by financing and handing over the structures to Libya it could be found partly responsible for their transformation in potential concentration camps.

Nothing was ever built in Sebha, while in Gharyan the existing structures were turned into a Libyan police station.   As for Kufrah, what had been built was turned into a center for health assistance of immigrants (an infirmary with about 150-200 beds and a cafeteria).  Regarding the structure at Kufrah – which hadn't yet been completed by 2010 – it is doubtful whether, once handed over to the Libyans, it could have effectively been used for the immigrants and not for the local population, seen as it is located in a peripheral location (like the oasis of Kufrah) that is lacking adequate health structures.

One last note regards the CIR.  It is one of the few NGO's that have operated in Libya through another private Libyan humanitarian organization.  This organization is the “International Organization for Peace, Care and Development” (I.O.P.C.D).  It is administered by Khaled al Humaidi, son of the Revolutionary Council member Kweldi al Humaidi, brother-in-law of Saadi Ghaddafi.

Clearly the I.O.P.C.D. has not helped the CIR much in monitoring the abuses that were taking place in the detention center but perhaps it has helped the illegal immigrants make their case against the Italian state.  Khaled al Humaidi has been involved in the past in an investigation by the prosecution of Perugia for arms dealing.

from ANSA press agency, 06.24.2009
During the ceremony organized by the UNHCR in occasion of the world refugee day we learned of the rejection of a boat with 72 illegal immigrants on board.  The 72 were taken on board a coast guard patrol boat and were then transferred at sea into a unit of the Libyan navy (that would be one of the three vessels with Italian-Libyan mixed crew).  A note by the Interior Ministry says:  “We have recently completed the transfer to Libyan authorities of 72 illegal immigrants, the majority of whom of Nigerian nationality (44 men and 28 women) during a joint Italian-Libyan operation against illegal immigration.  Seen as none of the 72 illegal immigrants has expressed the will to seek asylum, jointly with the Libyan authorities, the migrants were transferred to a unit of the Libyan navy that will take them back to Tripoli”.