Amnesty International is calling on the Italian authorities to investigate urgently whether 68 people rescued at sea and then forcibly returned to Egypt within 48 hours, were given the opportunity to apply for international protection.
The 68 people were on board a boat carrying a total of 131 people which was intercepted on 26 October 2010 by the Italian authorities near the coast of Sicily. According to an initial statement made by a senior law enforcement official, those on board identified themselves as Palestinians.
The Italian authorities transferred them to Catania, Sicily, and detained them all, including 44 children, in a sports facility for more than 24 hours. The Italian authorities maintained that detention was necessary to undertake identification procedures and arrange returns.
On the evening of 27 October 2010, the Italian authorities expelled 68 of them to Cairo, Egypt, by charter flight, claiming that they were in fact “illegal immigrants” from Egypt and not Palestinians.
Amnesty (http://www.amnesty.org/) believes that these mass expulsions appear to have taken place with no regard for the right of people to seek asylum and in breach of Italy’s obligations under international refugee and human rights law and standards.
The organisation has called on the Italian authorities to clarify whether and how they identified the individuals, determined their age and their possible protection needs, if they were informed of their right to seek asylum, and if any asylum application was lodged.
“All people rescued at sea must be given the opportunity to seek asylum and to have their claims assessed in a fair and satisfactory asylum-determination procedure,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.
“There are concerns that in this case none of the individuals, included the 68 deported, was given such an opportunity.”
Organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organisation for Migration, Save the Children and the Italian Red Cross were denied access to those taken ashore, despite repeated requests.
These organisations are all members of a project funded by the Italian Government and the European Union, aiming to provide immediate assistance to anyone arriving on Sicilian shores in distress.
Amnesty says it understands that this is the first time since 2005 that UNHCR has been denied access in Italy, following an official request.
Nineteen members of the group were arrested in connection with the smuggling of people, while 44 were identified as minors and handed over to social services.
Although those identified as minors were not summarily expelled, Amnesty is concerned that they have been detained for more than 24 hours, without access to any specialised assistance.
“In their rush to expel them, the Italian authorities are ignoring normal procedures and international standards for the protection of refugees, and asylum-seekers” said John Dalhuisen.
“The Italian authorities must immediately put a stop to mass summary expulsions of foreign nationals,” he declared.