CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — Immigration lawyers say that Italy would break European laws if it sends refugees it held for days on an Italian coast guard vessel outside of the European Union’s borders.
A days-long drama over the fate of 177 asylum-seekers was defused Saturday when Catholic Churches in Italy, Ireland and Albania said they would shelter the asylum-seekers. Italian news reports said Serbia and Montenegro are considering taking in some of the asylum-seekers.
But sending asylum-seekers without their consent outside of the EU would not be legal, according to the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration, a pool of Italian lawyers, academics and others involved in protecting the civil liberties of refugees.
“There is no legal basis for that,” Cesare Pitea, a University of Parma law professor with the immigration law association told Courthouse News on Monday. “It would be another violation of the law. They cannot be sent to non-EU countries” without their consent.
News reports said about 20 of the asylum-seekers were to be sent to Albania. The Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry, which announced the agreement with Albania, did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment.
Under EU law, asylum-seekers who reach Europe have the right to apply for refugee status, which brings with it a chance to have their cases heard and to receive legal help.
Asylum-seekers go to great — and very dangerous — lengths to reach Europe. Sending asylum-seekers who reach Italy to Albania likely could send them back into harm’s way, as they presumably might again seek to reach the EU along dangerous routes.
For example, as Courthouse News has reported, asylum-seekers in the Balkans report that police along EU borders there are turning them away, often violently, and robbing them.
Getting to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea is even more dangerous than crossing the Balkans. More than 1,500 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, a UN agency.
Asylum-seekers are leaving war-torn and impoverished nations in Africa and Asia. Their journeys to Europe are often marked by traumatic events, including slavery, torture, abuse and extreme hardship. They often pay smugglers to help them reach Europe.
Many of the people aboard the Diciotti, the ship that Italy refused to accept last week, told officials and medical staff of suffering trauma. The majority of the asylum-seekers aboard the Diciotti are from Eritrea, a small impoverished and war-scarred country in the Horn of Africa.
Italy’s hard-line stance on asylum-seekers and immigrants is being pushed by Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and leader of the League party.
Since taking office in June after his party did very well in general elections, Salvini has made stopping immigration to Italy a priority. His actions have included blocking humanitarian ships from delivering people rescued from the Mediterranean to Italian ports and demanding that other European nations take in more asylum-seekers.
Salvini is now in legal jeopardy over his decision last week to detain people aboard the Italian coast guard vessel, the Diciotti, while he demanded other EU nations take responsibility for the asylum-seekers.
A Sicilian public prosecutor opened an investigation into whether holding the asylum-seekers aboard the Diciotti in the port of Catania in Sicily was unlawful and an abuse of office.
Salvini has been defiant and even seemed to welcome the attention of the investigation. He’s taunted the justice system to probe his actions, and was seen on Sunday sending out a tweet with a photo of him holding a mug of beer and “giving a toast” to the investigators.
Salvini has become a lightning rod in Italian politics, sparking both admiration and condemnation.
Maurizio Molinari, the director of the conservative-leaning La Stampa newspaper, said on a television program that the latest skirmish over the Diciotti was a “double victory” for Salvini because he got other countries to take in asylum-seekers and some were being sent outside the EU.
But Molinari said Salvini’s heavy-handed approach on the Diciotti brings risk with it because it sets up a battle between the government and the judiciary.
Public prosecutors in Italy, such as the one in Agrigento looking into the legality of the government’s actions, are part of the judiciary, not the executive branch.
Molinari said this clash between the judiciary and the government is reminiscent of the “difficult days of fights between the judiciary and (Silvio) Berlusconi.” Berlusconi is the leader of a right-wing Italian party and clashed with the judiciary during his long tenure as Italy’s prime minister.
“One difference is that unlike Berlusconi, the people seem to be behind Salvini and favor his position,” Molinari said.
For now, it is far from certain how this legal battle will play out.
In Salvini’s case, any legal case against him faces big obstacles. He is a senator, therefore the Senate would have to approve legal charges against him, Pitea said.
Pitea said that what worries him is how Italy’s approach to asylum-seekers, as seen with the Diciotti case, is in keeping with a global phenomenon to treat asylum-seekers as though they are outside the law.
“For about the past five years, governments are progressively trying to put migrants outside the protection of the law,” Pitea said.
He said the Diciotti case “brings it to a high level.”
“They openly assert that these people should not be protected by the law, that they have no rights,” Pitea said.
He said the United States and Australia are behaving in a similar way. “There is a connecting thread in all those policies around the world,” he said.
Pitea said the investigation of the Diciotti by the Sicilian prosecutor, Luigi Patronaggio in Agrigento, was critical in seeking to establish a legal framework around Salvini’s actions.
Salvini allegedly did not provide written commands or orders in directing events surrounding the Diciotti, which lawyers say may have been a breach of office.
“It was a very important sign that we are a democratic country with checks and balances,” Pitea said about the prosecutor’s investigation.
For his part, Salvini has attacked Patronaggio; and a parliamentarian from his party, the League, said on Twitter that if Salvini is arrested “we will come and get you outside your house,” an apparent reference to magistrates.
The National Association of Magistrates on Friday blasted that attack as an unprecedented threat by a politician against officials with the judiciary.