06 July 2009

74 Eritrean Refugees Amid 89 Sent Back to Libya on July 1st

TRIPOLI, July 6, 2009 - The passengers of the vessel denied entrance off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy on July 1st were Eritrean: Eritrean refugees who now risk being repatriated or held indeterminately in Libyan prisons where they have already been arrested. Sixty-five men are in the detention camp Zuwarah while nine women are being held in the women's camp Zawiyah, west of Tripoli. We received a complete list of the internees' names from the Eritrean community of Tripoli but cannot publish it out of concern for their safety.

For the most part they are army deserters and are but a small percentage of the at least 130,000 Eritrean refugees in Sudan. For years the young men and women of Eritrea have been conscripted into the military once they come of age and forced to serve indefinitely; deserters are imprisoned. Journalists, conscientious objectors, politicians and religious leaders meet the same fate in this country which has become increasingly authoritarian since its independence in 2001. Italy understands the situation in Eritrea well, so well that residence permits were given to the majority of 2,739 Eritreans who disembarked on the Sicilian coast last year, in accordance with international obligations for political refugees. But times have changed. Forced returns at sea are the norm. It matters little that people who would risk their lives if repatriated are being returned to Libya.

After all Roberto Maroni, Italy's interior Minister, was clear “UNHCR can investigate asylum seekers in Libya”. The case remains closed. Why must a refugee seek asylum in Europe when he/she can easily do so in Libya? Who knows if the 75 Eritrean refugees forcibly returned to then arrested in Libya would agree? The UN High Commission for Refugees has already been informed of this case. If all goes well the repatriation will be annulled and the refugees relocated to Misratah, a detention camp 200 km east of Tripoli where since 2006 another 600 Eritreans have been waiting for a solution. The solution as proposed by Maroni is called resettlement and consists of transferring the political refugees to a third country willing to receive them. Italy did just that in 2007, accepting 60 Eritrean Women who had been imprisoned over a year at Misratah. Here some refugees have been detained for three years. Rather than return to Eritrean jails or to trenches on the Eritrean-Ethiopian border they prefer to remain confined, wasting away the best years of their lives. Waiting for Italy and Europe to open their doors even slightly.

The negation of basic human rights is one of the most disturbing ramifications of this policy of returning asylum seekers to Libya without reviewing their cases. Human rights have been sacrificed for expediency. However, what many observers don't realize is that each of the 74 Eritreans returned has the legal right to appeal in the European Court – and they would most likely win this case – against the violation of the right to asylum, the right to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the right to a fair hearing. In a similar case last month 24 Somalian and Eritrean refugees who had been denied entrance presented their case to the European Court aided by lawyer Giulo Lana of the Court of Rome. The 74 refugees returned July 1st also have legal rights, but no access to a lawyer. Recently the procedure of denying asylum has been streamlined. Two of the deported Eritreans - whose names we once again cannot publish - learned this the hard way. Once they realized that the Italian Navy vessel “Orione” was bearing south, they protested vigorously. According to the account of witnesses, a scuffle broke out between several officials and the two refugees. Nothing to fear: Italians can sleep soundly. According to the electoral posters of the Northern League Party, “We stopped the invasion.” (translated by Elizabeth Carson)