Pushed back in the Mediterranean Sea

Raffaella Cosentino
  Migrants forcedly returned to Tunisia by the Italian navy in violation of human rights conventions. “It`s part of the bilateral pact” says a confidential source. A boat of 104 person was pushed back at the end of august. One person risked his life to escape.
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The Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE)  of the European Parliament wants some explanations about recent forced return of boat migrants from Italy to Tunisia on the high seas off Lampedusa island in violation of the international legal principle of non refoulement. The Committee has decided to send a letter to Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, responsible for Home Affairs, inviting her at the next sitting of the Committee. The action has been required by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) a left-wing political group.

To stem the flow of Tunisian migrants to Lampedusa, southern border of Europe, the Italian government has been pushing back boat migrants to Tunisia for months. “It’s part of the bilateral pact between Italian and Tunisian government” sources operating in the field of  Save and Rescue events revealed. Concern has been expressed by Amnesty International about the content of the bilateral agreement, which is still kept secret. “No pushing back – Laura Boldrini, Unhcr spokeswoman said – The law doesn’t admit mass forced return. Even if we know that Tunisian people are often economic migrants, the access at the asylum procedure must be guaranteed because it’s individual”.

Our sources said that the migrant boats are the ‘targets’ spotted by the Italian navy ships and by the finance guard patrol boats while they are in international waters. The Finance guard is a special police force that controls the Italian borders. Two navy ships and a spotter plane ‘Atlantic’ patrol the Mediterranean sea close to Tunisian waters  “in application of the agreements”. Boats coming from Tunisia are identified by the western course they follow. People on board are summarily identified as Tunisians by the way they look like. There’s no assessment of their protection needs, even if they are children or women. In the sea, a quick glance is enough to decide about their destiny. In the Italian detention centers it’s required up to 18 months to identify an irregular migrant, a law wanted by the government has recently stated.

 The migrants are transferred twice, firstly on the Italian navy ships and then on the Tunisian patrol boats to be returned to the north Africa country. The Italian coast guard and finance guard patrol boats usually rescue the ones who are in danger or in bad health condition. During the Save and Rescue operation, called ‘Sar events’ the migrants are safely landed in Lampedusa.

But on august the 21st a rescue operation turned into a forced return of 104 migrants. Only seven people were landed inside Lampedusa harbor. Among them there were two women, a child and a man on a wheelchair. They all needed medical care after being saved from a boat carrying 111 persons which shipped water at about 40 miles away from the Italian island. “All the people were transferred on two boats, a grey one (belonging to the finance guard) and a red one (belonging to the coast guard)” said one of the seven migrants that arrived in Italy. At 18.00 pm only the finance boat full of migrants came into Lampedusa harbor, but it didn’t stop and went back into the Mediterrean sea. Many people witnessed the scene: tens of rescuers and doctors who were on the wharf because they had been alerted hours earlier about the arrival of one hundred migrants; as well as freelance photographer and videomakers. Twenty minutes later a guard coast boat landed only seven migrants out of 111.

It was clear that the others had been pushed back as later confirmed by Italian main news agency Ansa. In the middle of the night the supposed Tunisian migrants have been transferred from the Italian navy ship “Borsini” to a Tunisian guard patrol boat. The migrants may have opposed resistance.  One of them launched himself into the sea and risked his life by attempting to escape the return to Tunis. He broke one of his feet and he was aided by the Italian navy sailors and transferred to Lampedusa, where he’s been given the first medical care and later brought to Palermo hospital. He told that he’s Saharawi and he is a potential asylum seeker.

According to our sources it wasn’t the first time that people coming from Tunisia were intercepted in the Mediterranean sea and prevented from arriving in Italy, but it was the first time that people saved by Italian rescuers were forcedly returned. “Every time, it’s the Italian Ministry of Interior that orders the ships to be pushed back –our source said– in this case, the order arrived at the last minute and the rescuers were wrong footed. The finance guard patrol boat arrived full of migrants inside Lampedusa harbor and was going to land them but got a countermand and quickly turned back”. From the first to the 21st of august the number of irregular Tunisian migrants landed in Lampedusa fell to 497 despite 4.637 persons arrived from Libya and despite the thousands of people landed in winter months when weather conditions were worse than in summer. According to our sources, many others have been pushed back when their boats weren’t wrecked and they seemed Tunisians from their somatic types.

“It’s a violation of Geneva convention for Refugees and of European convention on Human Rights  because on the boats people are forbidden to ask for asylum” says Andrea Saccucci, a lawyer who has brought  Italy to trial in front of European court of human rights for another case of pushed back migrants. Saccucci and his colleague Lana defend 24 asylum seeker from Eritrea and Somalia who were forced to return to a dock in Tripoli by a Finance guard patrol boat on may 2009 in application of the “Friendship Pact” signed on August 30, 2008 by premier Berlusconi and his ex ally Gaddafi. The sentence is expected in autumn. Equally, the migrants pushed back to Tunisia could claim for damages.

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