Nigerian migrants who survived a deadly sea crossing last year filed a lawsuit against Italy for violating their rights by supporting Libya’s efforts to return them to North Africa, their lawyers said.
Seventeen plaintiffs petitioned the European Court of Human Rights last week, Violeta Moreno-Lax, a legal advisor for the Global Legal Action Network, told reporters. She is among four lawyers and several humanitarian groups involved in the case.
The migrants say Italy violated multiple articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including that people not be subjected to torture, held in slavery, or have their lives put in danger.
The United Nations, rights groups and news organisations say migrants face these conditions in Libya.
This is the first lawsuit filed against Italy for its decision to back the Libyan Coast Guard. The country lost a case in the same court in 2012 for directly handing over migrants intercepted at sea to Libyan authorities.
The legal process can take up to three years. Should the migrants win they can be awarded damages and Italy would be forced to abandon its policy of equipping, training and co-ordinating the Libyan Coast Guard, Moreno-Lax said.
“Using the Libyan Coast Guard as a proxy to turn back migrant boats is a new way of camouflaging Italy’s strategy of fighting irregular migration in the Mediterranean by trapping them in what the Italian Foreign Ministry itself has qualified as ‘the hell’ of Libya,” Moreno-Lax said.
The lawsuit highlights a stand-off between humanitarian groups seeking to save lives on the open sea and Italian authorities backed by the European Union trying to stop people from making the dangerous crossing in the first place.
A spokesman for Italy’s Interior Ministry, which spearheaded the policy, had no immediate comment.
Libyan naval spokesman Ayoub Qassem said the coast guard does its job within the terms agreed with Italy.
“Regarding abuse and violations against migrants, these are all considered as individual acts … We can’t say Libyan state institutions commit these acts,” Qassem said.
SEA CROSSINGS DOWN
Italy supplied Libya with seven refurbished vessels to date and three more are promised, while the EU trained about 190 Libyan coastguards.
Italy is also co-ordinating communications with the Libyan Coast Guard about possible boats in distress, according to court documents filed recently in Sicily.
Between 2014 and 2017, more than 600,000 migrants arrived on Italian shores, but crossings have fallen dramatically since Italy and Libya signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at stemming the migration flow in February last year.
During the first five months of this year, arrivals from Libya fell more than 80% versus last year to 6,700 during, official data show. Over the same period, the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted almost 6,000 migrants and refugees. In 2017 Libyans turned back almost 19,000.
Two plaintiffs in the lawsuit were intercepted and returned to Libya. They were held for two months in a detention centre and subjected to beatings and extortion with even basic food and healthcare not provided, before returning to Nigeria with the International Organisation for Migration.
All the plaintiffs were rescued at sea on November 6 when another 20 migrants drowned when a part of their rubber boat deflated.
German humanitarian ship Sea Watch 3 rescued 59 people that day and collected the body of a small child all brought to Italy.
The Libyan naval vessel, donated by Italy and operated mainly by an EU trained crew, returned 47 to Libya. In a video shot by Sea Watch, Libyans are seen beating migrants with a rope and the vessel then speeds off with a man clinging to the side.
Among the survivors returned to Libya, two were subsequently sold to a smuggler and tortured with electricity in an attempt to extort money from their families, said Charles Heller, co-founder of the Forensic Oceanography project, which prepared a report to support the lawsuit.