Survivors of a fatal boat incident are taking legal action against Italy over its coordination of Libyan Coast Guard ‘pull-backs’ – the forcible return of migrants – which they argue have led to abuse and deaths.
17 survivors of the incident, in which a boat carrying migrants found itself in distress off the coast of Libya, filed an application against Italy today with the European Court of Human Rights. Their submission used evidence compiled by Forensic Oceanography, part of the Forensic Architecture research group based at Goldsmiths, University of London.
On 6 November 2017, the Libyan Coast Guard interfered with the efforts of the NGO vessel Sea-Watch 3 to rescue 130 migrants from a sinking dinghy and at least 20 people died. The intervention was coordinated from Rome by the Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre, an Italian Government agency, and facilitated by a nearby Italian navy mission deployed in Libyan territorial waters. The Libyan patrol vessel involved had been donated by Italy.
The submission sets out how the Libyan Coast Guard ‘pulled back’ the survivors to Libya, where they endured detention in inhumane conditions, beatings, extortion, starvation, and rape. Two of the survivors were subsequently ‘sold’ and tortured with electrocution.
Today’s application exposes how the intervention of the coast guard follows the terms of a February 2017 formal agreement between Italy and the Libyan Government of National Accord. Under this agreement, the Italian navy both enables and coordinates the Libyan response at sea. The application asserts that the agreement establishes Italy’s legal responsibility for the actions of Italian and Libyan vessels in this case.
The consequences of the agreement for migrants attempting to leave Libya have been catastrophic. Deaths by drowning, violence and ill-treatment on board the Libyan Coast Guard vessel have been captured on camera by the crew of Sea-Watch 3.
The application was filed by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) and the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI), with support from the Italian non-profit ARCI and Yale Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic.
Charles Heller, co-founder of the Forensic Oceanography project, said: “we have analysed 16 different episodes in which Italy, with the support of the EU, has coordinated and directed the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return migrants to Libya, despite the well-documented human rights violations they can expect to face there. The evidence we have gathered demonstrates the shocking extent to which Europe has been outsourcing its human rights violations.”
Lorenzo Pezzani, co-founder of the Forensic Oceanography project, said: “audio-visual recordings by NGOs at sea have allowed us to reconstruct incidents such as that described in this application with unprecedented precision. What emerges is a harrowing story that brings the dramatic effects of Italy and the EU’s policy of ‘pull-back by proxy’ into sharp relief.”