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Wednesday, September 23, 2009     FOLLOW UPDATES ON TWITTER

Libyan navy helping Italy turn away boat people headed for Europe

WASHINGTON — Italy and Libya have pooled their militaries to battle illegal migrants traveling by sea — the 2009 equivalent of the Indochinese boat people of the late 1970s — according to a Human Rights Watch report.   

The report said Libya has been working with Italy to identify and capture illegal migrants headed for Europe. The New York-based group said the Libyan Navy was using fast patrol craft to attack and intercept vessels suspected of transporting Africans toward the Italian coast.

"We were in a wooden boat, and Libyans in a [motorized inflatable] Zodiac started shooting at us," the report, quoting an illegal migrant, said.

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The report, titled "Pushed Back, Pushed Around: Italy's Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya's Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers," said the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard were targeting boats filled with illegal migrants in the western Mediterranean Sea. HRW said the Italian Navy was also capturing the migrants and forcing them back to Libya.

A migrant told HRW that a Libyan vessel intercepted a migrant ship and began shooting. He said Libyans in civilian dress killed at least one migrant.

"Then a Libyan navy boat came and got us and started beating us," HRW said in a 92-page report on Sept. 21. "They collected our money and cell phones. I think the Zodiac boat was working with the Libyan navy. The Libyan navy took us back in their big ship and sent us to Bin Gashir deportation camp. When we arrived there, they immediately started beating me and the others. They beat some of the boys until they could not walk."

The report, based on interviews with 91 migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Italy and Malta, said Italian Navy patrol boats intercept migrant vessels and force their passengers onto Libyan ships. Some of the operations were coordinated by the European Union migration control agency, Frontex.

In May 2009, Italy and Libya established a command center and began joint patrols in the Mediterranean. Frontex has reported a sharp decline in illegal migration from North Africa to Europe in 2009.

"The reality is that Italy is sending people back to abuse," HRW refugee policy director and author Bill Frelick said. "Migrants who had been detained in Libya consistently spoke of brutal treatment and overcrowded and unsanitary conditions."

HRW said Italy was forcing people to return to Libya with the knowledge that they would be beaten, abused or tortured. The organization said Libya banned a delegation from visiting a migrant detention center.

"Italy flouts its legal obligations by summarily returning boat migrants to Libya," Frelick said. "The EU should demand that Italy comply with its obligations by halting these returns to Libya. Other EU member states should refuse to participate in Frontex operations that result in the return of migrants to abuse."

A 26-year-old Eritrean, identified only as Daniel, recalled an interception of his vessel by Malta, another leading partner of Italy and Libya. Daniel said Maltese authorities towed the migrant vessel to a Libyan ship for the voyage to North Africa.

"When we arrived, there were no doctors, nothing to help, just military police," Daniel was quoted as saying. "They started punching us. They said, 'You think you want to go to Italy.' They were mocking us. We were thirsty, and they were hitting us with sticks and kicking us. For about one hour they beat everyone who was on the boat."

The European Union has been negotiating an agreement with Libya that would create a mechanism for the return of illegal migrants. Italy has also pledged to invest $5 billion in Libya, including its military and energy sectors, as part of security cooperation.

"There are no refugees in Libya," Libyan Brig. Gen. Mohamed Bashir Al Shabbani, director of the Office of Immigration at the General People's Committee for Public Security, said. "They are people who sneak into the country illegally and they cannot be described as refugees."

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