UNHCR interviews asylum seekers pushed back to Libya

Briefing Notes, 14 July 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 14 July 2009, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR staff in Libya have been carrying out interviews with 82 people who were intercepted by the Italian Navy on the high seas on July 1 about 30 nautical miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa. They were transferred to a Libyan ship and later transported to Libya. Based on subsequent interviews, it does not appear that the Italian Navy made any attempt to establish nationalities or reasons for fleeing their countries.

Once in Libya, the group was placed in detention centers where UNHCR has had the opportunity to carry out interviews. Of those attempting to reach Italy, 76 originate from Eritrea, including nine women and at least six children. Based on UNHCR's assessment of the situation in Eritrea and our interviews with the people themselves, it is clear that a significant number from this group are in need of international protection.

During interviews UNHCR heard disturbing accounts alleging that force was used by Italian personnel during the transfer to the Libyan vessel. According to these allegations, six people from Eritrea needed medical attention as a result. The individuals also alleged that their personal effects, including vital documents, were seized by the Italian Navy during the operation and have not yet been returned to them. Those interviewed spoke of their distress after four days at sea and said that the Italian Navy did not offer them any food during the 12-hour operation to return them to Libya.

In view of the seriousness of these allegations, UNHCR has sent a letter to the Italian Government requesting information on the treatment of people returned to Libya and asking that international norms be respected.

Over the past years, Italy had rescued thousands of people in distress in the Mediterranean Sea, providing assistance and protection to those in need. Since the beginning of May, a new push-back policy was introduced and at least 900 people trying to reach Italy by sea have now been sent to other countries, mainly to Libya. UNHCR has expressed serious concerns about the impact of this new policy which, in the absence of adequate safeguards, can prevent access to asylum and undermines the international principle of non-refoulement.

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Rescue at Sea on the Mediterranean

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Summer, with its fair weather and calmer seas, often brings an increase in the number of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum in Europe. But this year the numbers have grown by a staggering amount. In the month of June, the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation picked up desperate passengers at a rate of more than 750 per day.

In late June, UNHCR photographer Alfredo D'Amato boarded the San Giorgio, an Italian naval ship taking part in the operation, to document the rescue process - including the first sighting of boats from a military helicopter, the passengers' transfer to small rescue boats and then the mother ship, and finally their return to dry land in Puglia, Italy.

In the span of just six hours on 28 June, the crew rescued 1,171 people from four overcrowded boats. Over half were from war-torn Syrian, mostly families and large groups. Others came from Eritrea and Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Bangladesh and beyond. D'Amato's images and the interviews that accompanied them are windows into the lives of people whose situation at home had become so precarious that they were willing to risk it all.

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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.

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