A new Human Rights Watch report strongly criticises Italy for summarily returning unaccompanied migrant children and adult asylum seekers to Greece, where they face a dysfunctional asylum system and abusive detention conditions.
The report shows that stowaways on ferries from Greece, including children as young as 13, are sent back by Italian authorities within hours without adequate consideration of their particular needs as children or their desire to apply for asylum.
The report, “Turned Away: Summary Returns of Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Adult Asylum Seekers from Italy to Greece,” documents the failure of Italian border police at the Adriatic ports of Ancona, Bari, Brindisi, and Venice to screen adequately for people in need of protection, in violation of Italy’s legal obligations.
“Every year hundreds of people risk life and limb hiding in or under trucks and cars on ferries crossing the Adriatic Sea,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Too often Italy sends them straight back to Greece despite appalling conditions and treatment there.”
Back in Greece, unaccompanied children and asylum seekers, like all migrants, are vulnerable to law enforcement abuse, degrading conditions of detention, and a hostile environment marked by xenophobic violence, Human Rights Watch said.
Italian and international law prohibit the removal of unaccompanied children without a determination that it is in their best interest. Yet, Human Rights Watch met with 13 children ages 13 to 17 who had been summarily returned to Greece. None of them were given access to a guardian or social services, as required by Italian and international law.
Although Italian government policy is to give an individual who claims to be a child the benefit of the doubt, Human Rights Watch research indicates that this policy is not being followed. Only one of the children interviewed had any kind of age determination examination, in his case a wrist x-ray.
“Most of those we met were Afghan boys fleeing danger, conflict, and poverty,” said Alice Farmer, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Italy needs to take responsibility for providing them the special protection to which they are entitled as children.”
Sending adult migrants back to Greece without giving them the opportunity to lodge asylum claims also violates national and international obligations. While Italy has the right to enforce its immigration laws, asylum seekers must be allowed to exercise the right to lodge asylum claims, and no one returned should be exposed to risks of torture or ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
Overwhelming evidence of chronic problems with Greece’s asylum system and detention conditions has led to landmark European court rulings barring returns to that country under the Dublin II Regulation, which generally requires the first EU country of entry to process an asylum claim. Numerous EU countries have suspended transfers of asylum seekers to Greece as a result.
Italy has not suspended Dublin transfers to Greece but claims to assess the risk of rights violations when considering whether to do so. But its summary returns from the ports contradict this policy.
Most people interviewed said they had not had a chance to express their desire to apply for asylum, while five said their pleas to do so were ignored by port police officers.
“Some asylum seekers may not want to apply for asylum in Italy, even if given the chance, because they are convinced that their prospects for protection and integration are better in other European countries,” Sunderland said. “But those who do want to apply for asylum should not be turned away.”
Human Rights Watch has urged Italy to suspend immediately the summary returns to Greece. It has also asked Italian authorities to permit those reaching the country who claim to be unaccompanied children, without exception, to stay and benefit from the specific protections guaranteed under Italian law, pending a properly conducted age determination.
Italian authorities should also properly screen adults to identify those with special vulnerabilities and those who wish to apply for asylum or otherwise have protection needs, said the human rights body.
The authorities should also provide full access to all arrivals for authorized nongovernmental organizations so they can provide legal and humanitarian assistance, Human Rights Watch said.