UNHCR deeply concerned over Lampedusa deportations
18 March 2005
GENEVA - The UN refugee agency said today it was deeply concerned about the chain of events leading up to Thursday's deportation of some 180 people aboard two flights from the Italian island of Lampedusa to Libya, with an Italian police escort.
UNHCR also said it deeply regrets the lack of transparency which has surrounded these events. As a result, suspicions that there may have been breaches of international refugee law will be hard to put to rest.
UNHCR, which had sent a senior staff member to Lampedusa, had requested access to the reception centre, in order to ensure that anyone who wished to make an asylum claim had the possibility to do so, and that any claims that were made are properly and fairly assessed. That request, which was made in accordance with UNHCR's mandate to protect refugees - including access to asylum-seekers and monitoring of asylum systems - has so far been refused by the Italian authorities.
UNHCR is also concerned by reports that Libyan officials were flown to Lampedusa and given access to the people in the centre. In UNHCR's view, it is not appropriate to involve officials of third countries, until it is clear who people are, whether they have any links with such countries, and what their reasons for moving are.
During a very similar episode last October, UNHCR was eventually permitted to enter the Lampedusa centre, after more than 1,000 people had been flown back to Libya. UNHCR believed that on that occasion the rushed methods used to sort out people by nationality meant that individuals who might have had a valid claim did not receive a proper assessment. UNHCR said it fears that the same concerns may apply to this week's developments in Lampedusa. "In other words," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said at a press briefing in Geneva, "it is far from clear that Italy has taken the necessary precautions to ensure that it is not sending back any bona fide refugees to Libya, which cannot be considered a safe country of asylum."
Libya has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and does not have a functioning national asylum system. There is a risk that refugees in need of international protection may be sent back from there to their homeland.
Redmond said UNHCR had been unable to gain access to the people sent back to Libya in October and therefore is not in a position to say that none of them were refugees or that none of them subsequently came to any harm.
UNHCR also regrets that the Italian authorities have, despite recent experiences, made no attempt to enlarge the reception centre in Lampedusa. "With a capacity of a mere 190, the centre is easily overwhelmed, creating an air of crisis that is perhaps not strictly necessary," Redmond said.
UNHCR hopes the deportations will not continue beyond Thursday's first two flights, so that those among the 633 persons remaining in the holding-centre at Lampedusa who wish to make an asylum claim, can do so.
Over the past 10 years, Italy has received an average of around 11,000 asylum claims per year - one of the lowest annual totals among the big EU countries.
Redmond said that UNHCR agrees that asylum procedures to determine manifestly unfounded claims should be efficient, and could be subject to a simplified review. It is essential, however, that all asylum-seekers have access to an asylum procedure, with the necessary safeguards.
He added that UNHCR stands ready to work with the Italian and Libyan authorities on developing approaches that would better reconcile concerns over irregular migration with the right to seek asylum and the obligation to provide protection to refugees.