The government of Italy has found itself at the wrong end of a lawsuit by African migrants who survived a deadly sea crossing last year.
A group of 17 Nigerian migrants have approached the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that Italy contravened a number of articles in the European Convention on Human Rights when it assisted the Libyan Coast Guard to return them to North Africa.
The plaintiffs were all rescued at sea on November 6, 2017. At least 20 people drowned during the crossing, after a part of their rubber boat deflated.
Two members of the group were returned to Libya, where they say they were held for two months at a detention centre. They report that they were subjected to beatings and extortion and that even basic food and healthcare was denied them. They returned to Nigeria with the help of the International Organization for Migration.
According to a Reuters report, around 59 people were rescued by the German humanitarian ship Sea Watch 3. The body of a small child was also collected. All those rescued were taken to Italy.
Also on that day, a video was taken by Sea Watch showing crew on a Libyan naval vessel – which came to help – beating migrants they intercepted. The vessel is reportedly then seen speeding off with a man clinging to the side.
The crew, mainly trained by the European Union, returned 47 people to Libya.
The group of migrants are being assisted by several humanitarian groups.
One of the lawyers representing the group, Violeta Moreno-Lax of the Global Legal Action Network, says that this was one way in which the Italian government was trying to stem the tide of irregular migration.
“Using the Libyan Coast Guard as a proxy to turn back migrant boats is just a new way of camouflaging (Italy’s) strategy of fighting irregular migration in the Mediterranean by trapping them in what the Italian Foreign Ministry itself has qualified as ‘the hell’ of Libya,” Moreno-Lax said.
In February 2017, Italy signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at stopping the migration flow.
Italy has helped Libya by supplying seven refurbished vessels, with three more promised. The EU has reportedly trained around 190 Libyan coastguards. Italy also coordinates communications with Libya regarding possible boats in distress, court documents filed recently in Sicily have shown.
Spokesperson for the Libyan navy, Ayoub Qassem denied the accusations of abuse, and said that the coast guard does its job within the terms it agreed with Italy.
“Regarding the abuse and violations against the migrants, these are all considered as individual acts … We can’t say Libyan state institutions commit these acts,” he said.
Morena-Lax says that the legal process can take up to three years to complete, but should they win, they could be awarded damages and it would force Italy to cancel its policy of helping the Libyan Coast Guard.
Italy faced a similar lawsuit in 2012. In that case, they handed migrants intercepted at sea directly to Libyan authorities. They lost that case.