The European Court condemns Italy for its refusals of entry. But with the new Lybia will things really change?

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg has condemned Italy for it refusal of entry policy which has seen migrants sent to Lybia. It was 6th May 2009 when the Italian patrol vessels were given the order for the first time, to obstruct the course of the arriving boats. They were to take the ships which they had intercepted at sea 35 miles south of Lampedusa, to Lybia. There, the Lybian police were waiting for the boats in the harbour at Tripoli, with a container lorry ready to load the migrants on to, and transport them as animals are, to various prisons around the country. On board one of the patrol vessels was the photo- journalist, Enrico Dagnino, who reported on the violence of the operation. He was then censured.

Over the course a year, a further 1000 people were sent back to Lybia. But nobody saw anything and nobody investigated. Fortunately in Rome a legal studio continued to believe our story and through various contacts in Lybia, managed to get the power of attorney of those refused entry to Italy, 11 Eritreans and 13 Somalis. It was these 24 who pressed charges against the Italian government in the European Court. The charges included collective deportation without any identification process; no right to appeal in front of a court; being sent to a third country, Kadhafi’s Lybia, where they were imprisoned in inhumane and degrading conditions and in some cases tortured. The two lawyers who have worked on the case are AntonGiulio Lana and Andrea Saccucci and today they are seeing the results of three years of trial. The European Court recognised Italy as guilty and sentenced the government to pay €15,000 in damages to the claimants, two of whom are now dead having drowned whilst reattempting the crossing to Italy. It is an important sentence, but nonetheless leaves two fundamental questions unanswered: what happened to the thousand migrants refused entry to Italy in 2009? and, what political consequences will the sentence have, considering that now in Lybia everything has changed?

The stories of the 24 claimants have already been told, 2 years ago. But in the meantime, there has been a war in Lybia and so today it is necessary to re-ask what happened to those 24 and the other thousand migrants who were refused entry and sent to Lybia. Andrea Segre and Stefano Liberti have explored these questions in their new documentary, Mare Chiuso (Closed Sea), soon to be distributed throughout Italy. The experimental bottom-up means of distribution will be used, which in the past enabled the film Come un uomo sulla terra (Like a man on Earth) to enter into circulation. In Mare Chiuso the film- makers attempt to track down those who were refused entry on another occasion, 30th August 2009, by the Marine military. They discovered that some of them are being held in refugee camps in Sousha, on the border between Tunisia and Lybia; some arrived in Italy in the crossings made in mid- 2011, during the war in Lybia; and, some have drowned in the many shipwrecks that have happened this year.

Italy is not the only country to have carried out such refusals of entry. Greece sends migrants to Turkey, Spain to Morocco and Mauritania. Yet Italy is the only country to have received such a strong penalty. It would be banal to say that it’s a just sentence against the political xenophobia of Belusconi and Maroni. This is partly due to the fact that the initial agreement between Italy and Lybia bears the signature of Prodi and the then Minister of the Interior, Amato; and partly because, up until the end of 2010 the European Commission and Frontex were working towards a framework agreement with Khadhafi on the very subject of immigration. This gives an even greater political weight to the ECHR’s sentence, which would de facto result in all border control policies throughout Europe as failing. If it weren’t for…..

If it weren’t for the fact that in the meantime, Khadhafi has been killed and his regime has been substituted by a transitional government which is anything but hostile towards the United Nations and international conventions. Lybia today is not the same as the Lybia of yesterday. There are, of course, episodes of torture in prison and suspicious deaths. Yet, in contrast with before, they are beginning to become the exception rather than the rule. The whole of the society is working to re-build a country based upon a State of rights. The administrative elections which took place in Misrata last week are an example that the country is moving in the right direction, as is the formation of dozens of political parties, hundreds of newspapers and regular publications, as well as cultural and social associations. In this context of renewal, it has to be expected that the approach to immigration will also change.

I was in Tripoli and Kufra a month ago and I was able to see at firsthand how for the first time in Lybia the United Nations are being given regular access to prisons, and how for the first time in Lybia a distinction between political and non- political asylum seekers is being made. In Tripoli, a Lybian charitable association runs a reception centre made out of abandoned crates left by workers at the building site of the train station in Tripoli, since the beginning of the war. About 700 Somalis live there, they all entered through the Kufra desert in recent months without documents. In Kufra they were allowed to go free to the extent in which they still considered to be political refugees. Yet with a certificate administered by the association which runs the camp, the refugees are free to circulate and to work in Lybia.

The same representatives of the United Nations told us that the transitional government is much more willing to collaborate compared to the regime. And so it can be expected that shortly the new Lybia will sign the Geneva Convention, probably as soon as there is a government which has been voted by the people- elections are scheduled for June 2012. At that point, Lybia will technically be considered a safe third country. And so with the same reasoning which is today applied to Turkey when Greece refuses entry to migrants and with a little forethought, the refusals of entry could begin again. For example, it would be enough if those shipwrecked were not taken aboard Italian patrol vessels, but left for Lybia to carry out all operations- because international waters remain outside European jurisdiction.

In short, the sentence handed down by the European Court risks to have a value which is more historical than political: to condemn a practice of the past, while everyone is working to repeat the same politics in the present with a new political subject, post- Khadhafi Lybia, and with improved material conditions. Because there is no doubt that with the opening up of Lybian prisons to the press, international organisations and non- governmental organisations, conditions for detainment are improving.

At Kufra, I saw firsthand, where the dire old detention camp had been replaced by a type of reception centre. The rooms had been made out of an old police station which had been set on fire during the rebellion. Bars had been replaced by curtains and the doors were opened every morning enabling those inside to go and look for work during the day. They are awaiting orders from Benghazi to transfer everything up north. The Somalis, and in some cases the Eritreans, were waiting to receive refugee status through the UN, whilst others were waiting to be sent back to their country. It is true that the Somalis receive privileged treatment in Lybia, whilst for the others there are no exceptions. The Nigeriens, Sudanese, Malians, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Chadians are all systematically deported. For the time being they are in the care of OIM (International Organisation for Migration), whose programme of assisted voluntary repatriation is used by detainees arrested at the border without documents.

And this is the point: things are being done differently, but they are still being done. Even a Lybian prison with dignified standards, is still a prison and the best ones are similar to the Italian CIEs (Centro di identificazione ed espulsione: Immigration Detention Centre(s)). But in the 21st Century, it is not acceptable to deprive someone of their freedom, be it for a week or a year, in a prison or in a detention centre, simply because they are guilty of travelling.

Journeys which, to tell the truth, are not certain to start up again. Because it is important to also take into consideration that in Lybia boats are no longer leaving for Italy, or at least not in the quantities they once were. Now in Lybia many workers are entering the country from all over Africa, with and without documents. The Lybian economy has a great need for skilled labour at the moment as it is rebuilding and restructuring and it has announced an economic boom for years to come. While the phone calls that arrive in Tripoli form Italy, from friends and relatives who left during the war are full of bitterness and disappointment. Europe is not what it once was. The crisis, unemployment, racism are all factors which discourage people risking their lives at sea, at least while there is work in Lybia.

Furthermore, now as never before, the Lybian authorities are attempting to wipe out the networks which organise the crossings in order to stop boats leaving for Italy. From Tripoli’s liberation in August to the end of December, hardly any boats left except for a couple of emergency ones. In January approximately 200 Somalis were stopped as they were leaving, whilst more or less the same number arrived in Malta and Italy. A further 55 died at sea. In February, so far no one has arrived. It looks as though the times when the regime encouraging the illegal smuggling of migrants and negotiations between Italy and Europe are over. Even if the illegal smuggling networks know how to recycle themselves, the opportunity to earn must be worth the risk. Spring will enable us to see the real results of these operations. When the sea is calmer, we will be able to understand if Lybia is still being used as a gateway into Europe. What is certain, however, is that young people from the south will continue to travel, maybe using other routes to enter Europe, or even, as is happening more and more, heading for other destinations, as Europe appears to be losing its central position on the world stage and edging closer to the sidelines.
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