GENEVA (AFP) — Campaigners filed a complaint with the United Nations against Italy on Wednesday over a teenage asylum-seeker who was sent back to Libya in 2018 with others, where he was shot, beaten and put to forced labor.
The Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) lodged the case with the U.N. Human Rights Committee, challenging the practice of EU coastal states hiring commercial ships to return vulnerable people to unsafe locations.
The NGO says it is the first case of its kind to target so-called privatized push-backs.
The complaint says that Italy and other states have turned private merchant vessels into instruments of refoulement — returning asylum-seekers to places where they risk persecution and torture — which is illegal under the Geneva Conventions.
“What we are witnessing is a worrying trend where the rescue of desperate people at sea is being outsourced to ill-equipped and untrained merchant ships,” GLAN chief Gearoid O Cuinn said in a statement. “This is a recipe for certain abuse.”
The case was filed on behalf of a South-Sudanese man who now lives in Malta.
He was rescued in the Mediterranean with dozens of others on Nov. 7, 2018, and was returned to Libya, where he was subjected to horrific treatment.
The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre oversaw the rescue, carried out by Panama-flagged merchant vessel Nivin, then asked the ship to coordinate with the Libyan Coast Guard (LYCG).
The LYCG told the Nivin to bring the people back to Libya, where the roughly 80 passengers were violently removed from the vessel by Libyan security forces, who used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition after a 10-day standoff.
The claimant, who was 19 at the time, was shot in the leg, arbitrarily detained, interrogated, beaten, subjected to forced labor and denied medical treatment for months, according to the complaint.
It relied on evidence in a report published Wednesday by Forensic Oceanography, a research team based at the University of London.
That report found that privatized push-backs have risen sharply since June 2018, and that seafarers are increasingly being “used by states seeking to circumvent their obligations toward refugees,” according to the statement.
“Our legal complaint is targeting Italy’s attempt to abdicate its responsibilities by privatizing the push-back of migrants to a nightmare environment in Libya,” O Cuinn said.
Italy in October renewed a widely criticized 2017 agreement with the Libyan coastguard to block asylum-seekers trying to leave for Europe.
Rights groups say Libya routinely picks up refugees in the Mediterranean and brings them back to overcrowded detention centers, where many have been victims of abuse and forced labor.
Libya, wracked by conflict since the 2011 uprising against Moammar Khadafi, has become a major transit route for people from sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere hoping to reach Europe.
Some 40,000 refugees and asylum-seekers live outside detention centers in urban areas in Libya, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee is made up of 18 independent experts who issue opinions and recommendations that carry reputational weight, but they have no power to compel states to follow their rulings.
© Agence France-Presse