The European Court of Human Rights on Thursday ruled that Italy violated human rights principles by spurning African migrants and asylum-seekers on the high seas, a judgment hailed as historic by Amnesty International.
In the case, Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy, the Court considered the plight of 24 people from Somalia and Eritrea who were among more than 200 people intercepted at sea by Italian authorities in 2009 and forced to return to Libya, their point of departure.
The practice violated international obligations to not return individuals to countries where they could be at risk of human rights abuses.
“This historic judgment is a damning verdict on Italy’s willingness to cooperate with Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s government in Libya, which was known to systematically abuse human rights,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Amnesty International’s Head of Refugee and Migrants’ Rights.
“The ruling strengthens respect for human rights across Europe and upholds international legal safeguards for migrants and asylum-seekers.”
The Court found that Italy violated the European Convention of Human Rights by exposing the migrants to the risk of being subjected to ill-treatment in Libya and being repatriated to Somalia and Eritrea.
Amnesty International intervened as third party in the case, jointly with the AIRE Centre and the Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’Homme (FIDH), pointing out that the Italian authorities’ actions began a policy of push-backs that were condemned for breaching fundamental principles of international human rights law.
The Court’s judgment establishes that even when individuals are intercepted in international waters, government authorities are obliged to abide by international human rights law.
Anybody they intercept must have access to an individualized procedure as well as remedies to challenge the decision to return them to their country of departure. The Court found such removals operated outside national territory constituted collective expulsion.
“States intercepting individuals outside their territorial waters cannot operate in a legal vacuum,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali.
“Even on the high seas, international human rights norms still apply, including the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returning people to a country where they run the risk of human rights abuses.”
The European Court judgment comes at a time when new governments are in place in both Italy and Libya.
However, Amnesty International has documented that Sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya are still at risk of torture or other ill-treatment, and many have been arbitrarily detained on the basis of their legal status in the country. Both governments are currently re-establishing cooperation ties on a number of issues, including migration control.
“It is regrettable that one of the first decisions of the National Transitional Council and the new Italian government, rather than rejecting such cooperation, has actually been to recommit to cooperation in the field of migration control,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali.
“The principles upheld by this judgment must inform any cooperation on migration control between the Italian government and the new Libyan authorities.”