Over 1,600 migrants currently held on the Italian island of Lampedusa are at risk of being forcibly returned to their home countries. According to an official statement by the Italian Minister of the Interior on 23 January, 150 migrants have already been returned from Lampedusa since 1 January.
All those on the island are at risk of being returned without access to a fair procedure for examining their asylum claims or the opportunity to challenge their deportation.
The Minister of Interior told a press conference on 28 January that 500 Tunisian migrants would be deported over the next two months, under an agreement Italy had reached with Tunisia on the return of irregular migrants.
The Italian Ministry of Interior further announced on Tuesday that 120 irregular migrants would be immediately returned to Tunisia. No official data have been released on whether any of the detainees have been or will be transferred to other reception centres in Italy.
The detention centre where the migrants are held was built to house 850. On 23 January, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed concern over the conditions in the detention centre and called on the Italian authorities to take all necessary steps to address the detainees' difficult humanitarian situation.
According to a 9 January UNHCR statement on the situation in Lampedusa, "People seeking asylum must nevertheless be allowed to disembark in a safe place, where they can receive information about their rights and have a genuine opportunity to file an asylum application which will be considered in a fair procedure”.
"Sending refugees back to countries where they cannot enjoy effective protection could violate Member States' international obligations to refrain from [forcible return]."
Since January, over 1,000 people of various nationalities have landed by boat on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. According to UNHCR figures, about 75 percent of the 36,000 who arrived in Italy by sea in 2008 applied for asylum, around half of whom were granted refugee status or otherwise protected from forcible return.
The Italian government implemented a new policy in January whereby identification and asylum procedures for all migrants arriving by sea in Lampedusa are carried out in a new detention and identification centre placed on the island. This move raised widespread concern about access to fair procedures and adequate legal representation.
Amnesty International is urging the authorities not to forcibly return anyone to a country where they would be at risk of serious human rights violations, in line with Italy’s obligations as a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Convention against Torture.
"International human rights and refugee law oblige the authorities to allow any migrant to seek asylum through fair and satisfactory procedures and grant protection against return to a country where they would be at risk of serious human rights violations," said David Diaz-Jogeix, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Programme.