23 February 2012

The European court condemns Italy over rejections. But with a new Libya, will things really change?

Photo-reportage, in French, of the rejection of May 6, 2009, Paris Match

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg has condemned Italy over rejections to Libya. It was May 6, 2009, and for the first time the Italian patrol was given an order to reverse course. And to take back to Libya the shipwrecked people who had been intercepted at sea 35 miles south of Lampedusa. On the dock in Tripoli, the Libyan police were waiting for them with container trucks ready to be loaded like cattle cars, and sorted throughout the various jails in the country. Aboard those patrol boats was a photojournalist, Enrico Dagnino, who told of the violence of that operation. Then it was censorship. Another one thousand people were ‘pushed back’ to Libya each year. But no one saw. And no one was outraged.

Fortunately, a law firm in Rome has never stopped believing, and through some good contacts in Libya managed to gather the attorneys of 24 of those rejected, eleven Eritreans and thirteen Somalis. They are the ones who pressed charges against the Italian government before the European Court. For having been expelled collectively and without identification, for not having had the right to an effective appeal before a court, and for having been rejected in a third country, Gaddafi’s Libya, where they were detained in inhumane and degrading conditions and in some cases tortured. The two attorneys are Anton Giulio Lana and Andrea Saccucci. They are now collecting the fruit of the work of a trial that lasted nearly three years.

The European Court has acknowledged Italy’s guilt and ordered the government to pay 15,000 Euros in damages to the plaintiffs, two of whom have since drowned trying to cross again. An important conviction that nonetheless leaves two important questions unanswered. What happened to the thousands pushed back in 2009? And what will the political consequences of this sentence be, given that in Libya everything has changed?

We have already told the stories of the 24 plaintiffs. But in the meantime Libya has gone through a war, and now one wonders what happened to them and the other thousands who were pushed back. The same question asked by Andrea Segre and Stefano Liberti, authors of the new documentary Mare Chiuso [Closed Sea], which will soon be distributed throughout Italy via the trialled grassroots distribution, which in the past facilitated the circulation of Come un uomo sulla Terra [Like a man on Earth]. In Mare Chiuso, they looked for the people who had been pushed back during a different operation, the one executed by the Italian Navy on 30 August 2009. And they found that some of them were in refugee camps in Shousha, on the border between Tunisia and Libya. Others arrived in Italy with the landings of mid 2011 while there was war in Tripoli. Others have drowned in the many- too many- shipwrecks that have taken place this year at the border.

Italy is not the only state to have carried out rejections. Greece pushes back to Turkey, Spain pushes back to Morocco and Mauritania. Yet Italy is the only country to have racked up such a strong conviction. It would be too obvious to say that this is the just condemnation of the xenophobic policies of Berlusconi and Maroni. Both because the agreement on rejections was signed by the Prodi government and the then Interior Minister Amato. And because until the end of 2010 the European Commission and Frontex were working on a framework agreement with Gaddafi on the issue of immigration. This actually gives even greater political weight to the ECHR ruling, which in fact would refute all European border control policies. Except for the fact that ...

In the meantime Gaddafi has been killed and his regime replaced by a transitional government by no means hostile to the United Nations and international conventions. The Libya of today is not the Libya of yesterday. Sure, there are still incidents of torture in prisons and suspicious deaths. But unlike before these are becoming the exception rather than the rule. The whole of society is working to build a country based on the rule of law. And the way elections were carried out in Misrata last week is a good example of this direction, as is the creation of dozens of political parties, newspapers and hundreds of cultural and social associations. In this context of renewal, we can expect that the approach to immigration issues will change.

Last month I was in Tripoli and Kufra, and I was able to see for myself how for the first time in Libya the United Nations have regular access to prisons, and how for the first time in Libya there is a distinction between asylum seekers and other migrants. In Tripoli, a Libyan charitable association operates a reception center housed in the abandoned houses of the workers of the train station construction site in Tripoli, blocked since the war began. There are about 700 Somalis; all have entered from the desert at Kufra in recent months, with no papers, and from Kufra were released being considered political refugees. So with a sort of certificate issued by the association that manages the camp, they are left free to move and work in Libya.

The same UN officials have said that the transitional government is more willing to cooperate than the regime was. So we can expect that soon the new Libya will sign the Geneva Convention on Refugees, probably as soon a government legitimized by popular vote is set up- elections are scheduled in June 2012. And then it will technically be considered a safe third country. By the same reasoning that applies today to Turkey when Greece pushes people back. And with some care, the rejections will begin again. For example, all that will have to be done is to not take people found at sea on board Italian patrol boats, and let Libyan means do all the work, so long as it is carried out in international waters, thus remaining outside the jurisdiction of the European Union.

In short, the significance of the European Court sentence may be more historical than political. Condemning a practice of the past, while everyone is working to repeat the same policies in the present. With a new political entity, post-Gaddafi Libya, and with better material conditions. Because there is no doubt that with the opening of the Libyan prisons to the press, international organizations and NGOs, the conditions of detention are greatly improving.

I've personally seen it in Kufra as well, where the old infernal prison camp has been replaced by a sort of welcome center, with dorms created from the old offices of a police station torched during the revolt, the bars replaced by curtains, and an open door for those who want to go into the street to look for day labor. All this while awaiting orders from Benghazi to transfer everyone to the North. The Somalis, and in some cases Eritreans, to be released as refugees by the United Nations. The others to be repatriated. Because it is true that there is better treatment for Somalis. But for everyone else there are no exceptions. Nigerians, Sudanese, Malians, Nigerians, Ghanaians, citizens of Chad, all are routinely detained until the day of expulsion, which is currently being carried out by the IOM (International Organisation for Migration), in whose assisted voluntary return programs are also involved prisoners arrested at the border without documents.

And that's the point. That the form will change but not the substance. In other words, a Libyan prison with decent standards of detention remains a prison , which at best will resemble Italy’s identification and expulsion centers (CIEs). And in the twenty-first century it is not acceptable to deprive someone of their liberty, whether for a week or a year, either in a prison or in a CIE, for being guilty of travel.

Travel which, to tell the truth, may not start taking place again. Because it is important to know that there is also this possibility. That departures from Libya will not take up again, or at least not in the numbers of past years. Certainly it is true that many workers are returning to Libya from all over Africa, with and without papers. But the Libyan economy has a great need of this workforce at this time of recovery and announced economic boom for years to come. While the stories that reach Tripoli by phone from Italy from friends and relatives who left during the war are tales of bitterness and disappointment. Europe is no longer what it once was. The economic crisis, unemployment, racism. All these factors certainly do not encourage one to risk life at sea, at least as long as there is work in Libya.

In addition, now more than ever, the Libyan authorities are aiming to clear the networks that organise the crossings. And to stop the boats departing for Italy. Since the liberation of Tripoli, in August up to December, there were virtually no landings, except for a couple of boats rescued in the channel of Sicily. In January, about two hundred Somalis were stopped while attempting to leave, as many as those who arrived in Malta and Italy in the same month, while another 55 died at sea. And in February no one has arrived in Italy yet.

It seems that the days in which the regime encouraged the contraband networks when it had to participate in negotiation tables with Italy and Europe are over. Although the smuggling mafias always know how to re-invent themselves, if the revenue opportunities are worth the risk. In any case, in the spring the results of these counter-operations will be clear. When the sea is calm we will know if Libya is still an entrance corridor to Europe. What is certain is that young people from the South continue to travel, perhaps on other routes to Europe, or even - increasingly - to other places in this world of which Europe is less and less a central point, and increasingly a decaying periphery.

The text of the sentence can be downloaded here

translated by Camilla Gamba