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European Court of Human Rights; Italy: Sanctions Result in Review of Immigration Policy

(Mar. 5, 2012) On February 23, 2012, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) sanctioned Italy for its policy of sending to Libya African migrants who have approached Italy by sea. The ECHR found the migrants to be at risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment as a result of being turned away from Italy. (EU Rights Court Sanctions Italy over Rights Push to Libya, AFP (Feb. 23, 2012), WORLD NEWS CONNECTION online subscription database, Doc. No. 201202231477.1_22fb005de1ff4ff5.)

The decision included an order that Italy pay each of the applicants in the case, 13 people originally from Eritrea and 11 from Somalia, €15,000 (about US$20,173) plus any applicable tax as non-pecuniary damages (to be held in trust for the applicants) and about €1,576 (about US$2,120) plus any applicable tax for costs and expenses. The decision is final and not subject to appeal; these payments are to be made within three months. (Case of Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy (Application No. 27765/09), HUDOC (Feb. 23, 2012).)

The migrants were being sent to Libya in 2009 under provisions of a bilateral agreement that country had with Italy; the Italian authorities argued that the destination was a safe one. The ECHR judgment found evidence that “irregular migrants and asylum seekers had been systematically arrested and detained in conditions described as inhuman by observers, who reported cases of torture among others” in Libya. (EU Rights Court Sanctions Italy over Rights Push to Libya, supra.) The Court also determined that returning the migrants to Libya meant they were at risk of deportation to their home states and further that there was both “widespread insecurity” in Somalia and also a chance that those who left Eritrea illegally could be detained and even tortured for their departure. (Id.) The Italian government knew or should have known that the migrants were not guaranteed protection if returned to Libya, according to the ECHR. (Id.)

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) hailed the decision as a “landmark judgment,” and stressed the need to respect the human rights of refugees. It called the decision important as a guideline for European nations for border control and interception policies. The UNHCR also recognized “the challenges that irregular migration poses to Italy and other EU countries and acknowledges the significant efforts made by Italy and other states to save lives in their search and rescue operations.” (Press Release, UNHCR, Landmark Judgment of the Strasbourg Court on Push-Backs in the Mediterranean Sea (Feb. 23, 2012).)

In response to the ECHR decision, Italy's International Cooperation and Integration Minister, Andrea Riccardi, said the country would “examine this verdict with great attention. It will allow us to think and re-think our immigration policies.” (European Court Verdict Prompts Italy Immigration “Re-Think,” AFP (Feb. 23, 2012), WORLD NEWS CONNECTION online subscription database, Doc. No. 201202231477.1_72eb004614823c9c.)

Not everyone in Italy was pleased by the decision. Maruizio Gasparri, a member of the People of Freedom party, argued that the Italian government policy had been “in line with international law.” (Id.) Federico Bricolo, a Senator from the Northern League, which is known for its anti-immigrant stance, called the ruling “unacceptable” and “political.” (Id.) Matteo Salvini, also from the Northern League and a member of the European Parliament, called the decision “crazy.” (Id.) A statement on the webpage of the Northern League said that the decision was evidence that Europe wants to “impose rules that encourage illegal immigration.” (Respingimenti, sentenza Ue inaccettabile, Lega Nord website (Feb. 23, 2012), computer translation.)