The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website] on Thursday ruled [text] that Italy violated international human rights laws when a group of Somalian and Eritrean migrants traveling from Libya were intercepted by Italian authorities and returned to Libya. The court found that Italy violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights [text, PDF] by exposing the migrants to the risk of ill-treatment in Libya and of repatriation to Somalia or Eritrea. Italy argued that Libya was a "safe country" at the time because it complied with its international commitments protecting refugees. The migrants had not expressed a desire to apply for asylum or any other form of international protection, so Italy also argued that they had no oblgiation to provide protection. The ECHR wholly rejected the argument:
[D]uring the period in question no rule governing the protection of refugees was complied with by Libya. Any person entering the country by illegal means was deemed to be clandestine and no distinction was made between irregular migrants and asylum seekers. Consequently, those persons were systematically arrested and detained in conditions that outside visitors, such as delegations from the UNHCR, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, could only describe as inhuman. [...] Those same reports clearly show that clandestine migrants disembarked in Libya following their interception by Italy on the high seas, such as the applicants, were exposed to those risks.The court ordered Italy to pay the 24 migrants €15000 euros each in damages. The court additionally found violations under Article 4, Protocol No. 4's prohibition of collective expulsions, as well as the right to an effective remedy under Article 13. The judgment was welcomed [press release] by the UN Refugee Agency (UNRA) [official website] and Amnesty International in Italy [official website, in Italian], who called the decision a "milestone" for human rights [press release, in Italian].
In September 2009, Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] released a report warning of Italy's potential international human rights violations [JURIST report]. The report found that Italy often intercepts migrants traveling by boat from Libya and fails to screen migrants for potential refugee status before returning them to Libya, thereby violating the European Convention on Human Rights and the principle of non-refoulement. In May 2009, Italy's lower house of parliament passed a bill [JURIST report] increasing penalties for illegal immigration, and the government also sent 227 migrants back to Libya without asylum hearings in violation of the UN Refugee Convention [text]. In addition to criticism by the UNRA, UN human rights experts have also expressed concern [JURIST report] for Italy's treatment of detained mirgrants and asylum seekers. The issues raised by HRW's 2009 report were similarly and raised previously in a 2006 report.