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European rights court slams Italy for mistreatment of child refugee

A Gambian teenager at the center of the case was one of nearly 200,000 refugees who arrived in Italy by boat in 2016, making the dangerous trek across the Mediterranean Sea in a makeshift vessel.

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Europe’s top rights court sided against Italy on Thursday in a case over migrant rights, criticizing Rome for jailing an underage refugee in an overcrowded adult detention center. 

The European Court of Human Rights found that Italy had violated international law when, in 2016, it housed then-17-year-old Ousainou Darboe in an adult facility for months despite his lawyers arguing he should be placed in a center for unaccompanied minors. 

The seven-judge panel cited a number of international treaties - including the European Convention of Human Rights, which created the court in 1959, as well as European Union law covering refugees, Italian laws regarding minors and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child - all of which require minors to be housed separately from adults and for all refugees to be treated with dignity and respect.

“The Court concludes that he was subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment,” the judges said in their decision. 

Darboe told the Italian authorities who took him into custody when he arrived on the Italian island of Sicily that he was a minor and was traveling without a guardian. Initially, he was housed in a center for other children, but after an examination by a doctor, he was moved to an adult facility. He was transferred to the migrant reception center in Cona in northern Italy, housed with 1,400 adults in a space designed to accommodate 542 people. Human rights organizations have long taken issue with the facilities, pointing out that they are overcrowded and lack basic necessities, including heat and hot water. 

Lawyers working on Darboe's behalf initially filed a complaint in Italian courts before ultimately asking the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights to intercede. In February 2017, the court ordered Italy to transfer Darboe to a facility for minors and he was moved to another center four days after that decision.

In that ruling, the court was critical of Italy’s decision to use the Greulich and Pyle method to determine the teenager’s age, rather than relying on his identity paperwork. The method uses X-rays of hand bones to determine age but has been criticized for its unreliability. Thursday's ruling says the method “is based on standards calibrated on citizens of the United States of European origin born between the two wars, with very different characteristics from the African populations to which the applicants belong."

Another teenager, Moussa Camara, who hailed from Guinea, was part of the initial lawsuit but has since disappeared so the court dropped his complaint. 

The rights court has long been critical of how its member states treat underage migrants applying for asylum. It has repeatedly sided against countries that have housed minors with adults or kept children in detention facilities for too long. In a 2016 ruling, the court criticized Malta for failing to provide minors sufficient resources and in 2019 found Greece had repeatedly violated international law by housing underage migrants in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. 

The court ordered Italy to pay Darboe 11,500 euros ($11,700) in damages and expenses. 

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