Follow-up from UNHCR on Italy's push-backs

Briefing Notes, 12 May 2009

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 12 May 2009, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Several of you have asked about any follow-up from UNHCR on Italy's recent push-backs to Libya of persons intercepted or rescued at sea since May 6.

UNHCR Rome is sending a letter to the Italian government noting that while UNHCR appreciates the challenges which irregular migration poses to Italy and other EU countries, we remain seriously concerned that the policy now implemented by Italy undermines access to asylum in the European Union and carries with it the risk of violating the fundamental principle of non refoulement which is enshrined in the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees and in EU law as well as in other instruments of international human rights law. The non refoulement principle does not carry with it any geographical limitation. States are obliged to respect this principle wherever they exercise jurisdiction, including on the high seas.

UNHCR's concern is heightened by the fact that Libya is not a State party to the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, and does not have a national asylum law or refugee protection system. There is, therefore, no assurance that persons in need of international protection may find effective protection in Libya.

Nevertheless, UNHCR is endeavoring to provide humanitarian assistance and basic protection to the persons sent back to Libya by Italy. From our initial interviews in detention facilities with some of these persons in recent days, it appears that there are indeed a number who wish to seek international protection and may indeed qualify for such protection. This includes persons from Somalia and Eritrea, for example.

In view of the fact that states maintain responsibility for the consequences of their actions affecting persons under their jurisdiction, we are asking the Italian government to readmit those persons who were sent back by Italy and are identified by UNHCR as seeking international protection. Their refugee claims could then be determined in accordance with Italian law.

UNHCR believes it is imperative to find ways of ensuring that migration control measures do not impede access to international protection for persons in need of it.

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Drifting Towards Italy

Every year, Europe's favourite summer playground - the Mediterranean Sea - turns into a graveyard as hundreds of men, women and children drown in a desperate bid to reach European Union (EU) countries.

The Italian island of Lampedusa is just 290 kilometres off the coast of Libya. In 2006, some 18,000 people crossed this perilous stretch of sea - mostly on inflatable dinghies fitted with an outboard engine. Some were seeking employment, others wanted to reunite with family members and still others were fleeing persecution, conflict or indiscriminate violence and had no choice but to leave through irregular routes in their search for safety.

Of those who made it to Lampedusa, some 6,000 claimed asylum. And nearly half of these were recognized as refugees or granted some form of protection by the Italian authorities.

In August 2007, the authorities in Lampedusa opened a new reception centre to ensure that people arriving by boat or rescued at sea are received in a dignified way and are provided with adequate accommodation and medical facilities.

Drifting Towards Italy

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie joined UNHCR chief António Guterres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they met with boat people who have fled unrest in North Africa.

More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Fleeing Libya by sea

Thousands of people, mainly sub-Saharan Africans, are taking to the sea in ancient, leaky and overcrowded boats to escape war in their adopted homeland. Libya. The destination of choice is the Italian resort island of Lampedusa, some 600 kilometres north of Libya in the Mediterranean. Many of the passengers arrive traumatized and exhausted from the high seas journey. Others perish en route.

One Ivorian migrant describes life in Tripoli before leaving: "There was no peace. There was rifle fire everywhere. Then NATO started to bomb. We had nothing to eat. Some Libyans started to attack strangers at night, to steal your money, your mobile, whatever you have ... No way to stay there with them. Better to flee."

UNHCR estimates that one in 10 people die during the sea journey from Libya. Those bodies which wash ashore get a simple burial in Lampedusa's cemetery.

May 2011

Fleeing Libya by sea

Italy: Mediterranean RescuePlay video

Italy: Mediterranean Rescue

The Italy Navy rescues hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers on the high seas as the numbers of people undertaking the crossing of the Mediterranean from North Africa grows.
Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in SicilyPlay video

Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in Sicily

Over 1,200 migrants were rescued from inflatable boats off the boast of Lampedusa on the 7th of February by the Italian navy. Young men, women and children, crammed into eight dinghies and a boat, were spotted by helicopter half way between Tunisia and Italy.
Italy: Waiting for AsylumPlay video

Italy: Waiting for Asylum

Sicily has a high number of asylum-seekers because of its location in the south of Italy. In 2011, Cara Mineo was set up to provide asylum-seekers with a place to live while their applications were processed. Today, more than 4,000 people stay there and must wait up to a year for a decision on their applications.