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Migrants sue Italy over 'deadly' deal with Libya coast guard

Migrants swim to safety after travelling on the Mediterranean sea, seen on August 30, 2016 [Tamer Yazar/Twitter]
Migrants in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to reach Europe [Tamer Yazar/Twitter]

Survivors of a boat that sank while crossing the Mediterranean are suing Italy over its collaboration with the Libyan coast guard which they say violated their human rights.

At least 20 migrants died when the dinghy they were in, which was carrying 130 people, sank on route to Europe on 6 November 2017. Among the dead were at least two children. Their parents are now among the 17 people filing an application in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) saying Rome was responsible for Libya's "violent and reckless" actions.

The Libyan coast guard is said to have interfered in rescue efforts by a humanitarian ship belonging to Sea Watch, a German NGO that conducts civil search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Sea Watch claims that the Libyan coast guard "beat and threatened" survivors as they pulled them out of the sea, returning 47 migrants to Libya to be held in a Department of Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) facility.

Italy is currently responsible for training, equipping and funding the Libyan coast guard after the two countries signed a controversial deal in February 2017 to prevent migrants from reaching Europe. The application to the ECHR states that Italy supplied the dinghy to the Libyan coast guard months before the incident, and accuses Italy of violating the migrants' human rights through what they call the "subcontracting" of migrant rescue operations to Libya, according to Italian news site the Local.

Read: Libyan coastguard intercepts more than 500 migrants

The case has been filed by two human rights organisations, Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) and the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration. The lawyers prosecuting the case say they want the court to order Italy to pay "moral reparations" and end the agreement with Libya, which they say violates international law. It is hoped that a 2012 ruling by the ECHR, which concluded that Italy's previous "push back" campaign breached international law, will serve as a precedent for the current case being brought before the court.

GLAN legal advisor, Violeta Moreno-Lax, told the Independent that "the Italian authorities are outsourcing to Libya what they are prohibited from doing themselves, flouting their human rights obligations." She added that "[the Italian authorities] are putting lives at risk and exposing migrants to extreme forms of ill-treatment by proxy, supporting and directing the action of the so-called Libyan coast guard."

The Italy-Libya deal has come under heavy criticism from human rights organisations, with Amnesty International claiming that "people are being forced to endure torture, arbitrary detention, extortion and unthinkable conditions in detention centres run by the Libyan government." Director of the Amnesty International European Institutions Office, Iverna McGowan, added that "while Italy has been in the driving seat, all European governments cooperating with Libya on border control share responsibility for the unlawful containment of refugees and migrants in centres where unconscionable abuses take place."

Read: Libyan coastguard intercepts more than 500 migrants

The centres in question (DCIMs) have been called "an outrage to humanity" by United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, after UN monitors visited Libya in November 2017. The UN gathered eye-witness reports of people being beaten if they asked for food or medicine and saw "emaciated and traumatised men, women and children piled on top of one another."

Italy has previously defended the deal to cooperate with Libya on returning migrants, with Italian Interior Minister, Marco Minniti, arguing that the deal had yielded results. In August 2017, the number of African migrants and refugees reaching Italian shores from Libya was down 87 per cent on the previous year, according to the Guardian.

UNHCR estimates that in 2017 over 3,000 people died or were declared missing while trying to cross the Mediterranean. Since 2014, over 15,000 people have died or were declared missing, with numbers reaching a peak in 2016 after several Balkan countries closed their borders and cut off the so-called "Balkan Route" used by many migrants and refugees.

As a result the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said the Mediterranean is "by far the world's deadliest border".

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