During his recent visit to Cyprus and Greece, Pope Francis harshly criticised failed EU asylum policies and urged solidarity and fair allocation of people in need of protection. An Italian rights monitor deems the deprivation of freedom “unjustified and an end in itself” as less than half of people held in pre-removal detention centres are actually deported. As NGOs file an appeal before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) over the consequences of cooperation policies with Libya, the EU and Italy move to increase their engagement.

On 6 December Pope Francis concluded a five-day visit to Cyprus and Greece including the Mavrovouni Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) on the island of Lesvos. The Pope delivered a series of strong and critical statements related the asylum policies of the EU and its member states. “Barbed wires are put in place so as not to let the refugee enter, the one who comes to ask for freedom, bread, help, brotherhood, joy, who is fleeing from hatred and is faced with a hatred that is called barbed wire. May the Lord awaken the conscience of all of us in the face of these things”, he stated. Francis further addressed the situation on the Mediterranean: “which for millennia has brought different peoples and distant lands together, is now becoming a grim cemetery without tombstones…Let us eradicate the prevailing mentality revolving around our ego and personal and national egoisms which determine every decision we take”. With reference to the interception and return of people to Libya to detention in what he referred to as “concentration camps”, the Pope stated: “If I send someone back, then I have to accompany him and integrate him in his country. I cannot leave him on the Libyan shores. That is cruelty”. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) almost 31,000 people have been intercepted and returned in 2021 so far. The Pope urged the EU to improve its allocation of refugees in a spirit of solidarity and responsibility sharing, noting that every country has the capacity to take in some people. “Governments know how many people they can take in. Migrants must be received, accompanied, encouraged and integrated […] And if a government cannot do that, it must speak to others so that they take care” Francis said. During his visit to Cyprus, Pope Francis ensured the relocation of 50 asylum seekers to Italy, including two Cameroonian nationals who have been stuck for months in the UN-administered buffer zone of the divided island. In stark contrast to the approach of the Pope, the Republic of Cyprus has taken an increasingly harsh line on asylum seekers that has encompassed systematic pushbacks and a request to the European Commission to suspend asylum procedures. The government claims that around 10,000 irregular arrivals so far in 2021 – mainly from the Northern Turkish part of the divided island – constitute a “demographic threat”, a claim activists reject as misleading.

Statistics released by Italian authorities reveal that between 1 January and 15 November 2021 only 2,231 out of 4,489 people in pre-removal detention (49.7 per cent) were actually deported. The figures confirm a trend over the previous two years, in which only 49 per cent and 51 per cent were deported respectively. These statistics have engendered criticism from the National Guarantor for the Rights of Persons Detained or Deprived of Liberty (NGDL) an independent body supervising authorities on deprivation of liberty. Given the disproportionality between the number of people detained and those actually returned, the NGDL says the deprivation of freedom appears “unjustified and an end in itself”. According to the supervising body, the reasons that deportations are not carried out include arbitrary departures and arrests inside the centres, identification failings, judicial authorities not upholding detention, and requests for international protection.

With the support of lawyers from ECRE member the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI) and the Network of University Legal Aid Institutions (NULAI), two women have filed an appeal against Italy and Libya before CEDAW. The appeal alleges violations of articles 2 and 6 of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which protect against discrimination and exploitation via prostitution. After a year of exploitation, torture and arbitrary detention, the two women attempted to reach Italy from Libya, but were intercepted at sea and repatriated to Nigeria through an IOM coordinated Assisted Voluntary Return Program. According to ASGI: “At the heart of the appeal there are two main aspects: on the one side, the cooperation policies between Italy, EU and Libya which, by blocking people in the country, contribute to maintaining the exploitation system. On the other side, the lack of control on the funding for IOM assisted repatriation programmes, that are applied also to victims of human trafficking”. On 7 December the EU increased its cooperation with Libyan authorities by providing logistical equipment for a mobile coordination centre to support maritime monitoring activities. The centre comprises shipping containers with computer terminals and radio facilities inside, for which the EU has paid 15 million euro. The funding is supplied under an agreement managed by the Italian Interior Ministry, and the new equipment was delivered by Italy it what was intended to be a covert operation. Pictures released on Twitter however confirmed the presence of the large Italian military ship in a Libyan port.

The UN Refugee Agency has announced the closure of its centre in Tripoli, Libya, by the end of the year. The decision comes after more than seven weeks of protests by people seeking to be evacuated and recent violent interventions by Libyan militia in front of the centre.

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Photo: ECRE

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.