A new investigation find that the Italian authorities illegally returned asylum seekers including minors to Greece and put them in secret jails. Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni to visit Tripoli as the so-called Libyan Coast Guard continues to intercept people on the move and threats NGO rescue operators. The new Frontex chief promises to “restore trust” and respect fundamental rights amid pushback controversy.

A new investigation from the Lighthouse Reports and partners uncovered evidence that asylum seekers including children from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq are held in secret unofficial jails – in the form of metal boxes and dark rooms – on commercial ships headed from Italy to Greece, as part of illegal pushbacks by the Italian authorities. Data provided by the Greek authorities shows that hundreds have been affected by this systematic practice in the last two years, with 157 people returned from Italy to Greece in 2021, and 74 in 2022 – although experts believe that the number is potentially higher as not all cases are documented. The investigation also found that on one ferry, named the Asterion II, people are locked in a former bathroom with broken showers and toilets, along with two mattresses while on another commercial ship, named Superfast I, people are held in a metal box with a caged roof in the garage room on one of the lower decks. According to an Afghan asylum seeker who was held in this place: “It is a room the length of 2 metres and the width of 1.2 metres. It’s a small room […] You have only a small bottle of water and no food at all […] We had to stay in that small room inside the ship and accept the difficulties”. Already in 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR): “ruled that Italy had unlawfully returned asylum seekers to Greece in this way, denying them the opportunity to lodge a claim for protection”. However, according to Lighthouse Reports: “Italy has repeatedly claimed that this practice has stopped, and has pushed for official monitoring of its border processes at the port – which were put in place following the ECHR judgement – to be stopped on the basis that the violations are no longer occurring”.

Meanwhile, a man and a woman of African origin, died on 23 January in the southern province of Foggia in Italy of carbon monoxide inhalation emitted by a brazier lit to keep them warm at night and two other migrants were intoxicated. Almost 1500 people live in the so-called “ghetto” and work as farmhands in a “situation of invisibility” in the countryside around Foggia. “It is fundamental to put farms in a condition to truly benefit from the contribution that the work of non-EU foreigners can offer, tearing them away from a situation of invisibility,” said the Puglia chapter of the farmers’ union Coldiretti.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni will be on a “diplomatic” tour with an expected visit to Stockholm to “secure concessions on migration from the Swedish presidency of the Council of the EU” and to Tripoli where many refugees are mistreated and detained. This tour follows the announcement of another tour planned for Meloni’s ministers to countries involved in rights violations such as Libya, Tunisia and Turkey. Meanwhile, life-saving operations continue in the central Mediterranean. NGO Sea Watch International announced on 24 January that their drone named Seabird2 is off again to monitor human rights abuses by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard and report distress cases near the Libyan shore after months of an unlawful blockade. On the drone’s first flight, the crew spotted three boats carrying migrants, however, only one boat carrying 69 people including 25 minors and 9 women was rescued by Geo Barents, a rescue ship run by MSF. The other two boats were intercepted by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard while an Italian Air Force aircraft was flying in the vicinity. The crews of Geo Barents and Seabird1 witnessed the interception of the two other boats. MSF Sea tweeted: “As we approached the boat to rescue people and bring them to safety, we were threatened with being shot if we stayed in the area. We saw from afar that one or more people jumped into the water”. On the following day, MSF Sea communicated that the Italian authorities once again assigned survivors a distant place of disembarkation – this time La Spezia – requiring about 100 hours of navigation, as a part of Italy’s strategy to obstruct the work of civil fleets. On 25 January, Refugees in Libya reported about a shipwreck off the coast of Garabuli town in Tripoli district in northwestern Libya, leaving eight people dead while 85 people are still missing. On the same day, following distress alerts from Alarm Phone, Geo Barents conducted two separate rescue operation of two overcrowded rubber boat near Libya. The first one was carrying 61 persons including 12 women and 24 minors while the other one had on boat 107 people including 5 women and 26 people – a total of 237 persons, including 87 minors and 27 women. Moreover, Ocean Viking rescue ship, run by SOS MEDITERRANEE, rescued 95 people from an overloaded rubber boat in international waters off Libya, following Seabird2 distress alert. Italian authorities used the same strategy to obstruct their work and assigned the distant port of Carrara, which requires 3 days of navigation. Also on the same day, Alarm Phone received a distress alert from 35 people on a small plastic boat who escaped from Libya and the Libyan authorities were asked to start a rescue operation with no response so far. However, Alarm Phone communicated on 27 January that they believe that 35 people were intercepted and returned to Libya. They tweeted: “Libyan Coast Guards arrived on scene during the operation & posed severe risk to teams & survivors’ safety with dangerous manoeuvers”. Data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has identified the Central Mediterranean route to Europe as the deadliest route where at least 20,218 people have died since 2014.

The ongoing tragedies and crackdown on search and rescue operators occur at a time in which an internal EU memo is being circulated, outlining the extension of the IRINI operation’s presence on the Libyan coast until at least March 2025 while highlighting the “worrying circumstances of refugees in Libya” and failure in improving their conditions. “Irini supports Frontex by providing them with data on migration, which is then used in their partnership with the Libyan Coastguard”. Meanwhile, the new chief of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Hans Leijtens, vows to “restore trust” in the agency and “really deliver tangible results” in defending EU’s external borders in a press conference in preparation of taking over his new role on 1 March. When asked about accusations by rights groups including Human Rights Watch that Frontex had been complicit in abuses of migrants in Libya by collaborating with the Libyan coast guard to intercept boats, he promised “accountability, respect for fundamental rights and transparency”. “I’m not the type of director who will build a fence around Frontex,” Leijtens said. “I want to open the doors”. Furthermore, The EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson underlined in the conference that “Frontex’s role was to save lives and to alert coast guards when a migrant boat was at risk of sinking”.

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