Libya accepts boat people back from Italy

For the first time, Libya has agreed to agreed to take back boat people picked up off its shores by Italian vessels, prompting concern among human rights and humanitarian groups.


AFP - Libya for the first time Thursday agreed to take back boat people picked up off its shores by Italian vessels, prompting concern among human rights and humanitarian groups.

In what Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni hailed as an "historic day" in the fight against illegal immigration, three Italian navy launches ferried 227 boat people into the port of Tripoli.

According to Italian aid agency CIR, three of the women were pregnant and of them had to be hospitalised on arrival at Tripoli.

Since they had been picked up Wednesday in waters patrolled by the nearby island state of Malta, the deal could help resolve a long-running conflict between Italy and Malta over responsibility for boat people, said Maroni.

But aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) condemned what it called a "terrible event."

"Far from being a historic event as the Italian government suggests, this forcible and cynical return is contrary to international laws," the head of MSF-Italy, Loris de Filippi, told AFP.

"You can't send people back to a country like Libya that hasn't ratified international humanitarian conventions like the Geneva convention on human rights," De Filippi said.

But the UN refugee agency said it was "very concerned" over the development.

"The migrants were unable to make any demands for asylum because they weren't even received," Laura Boldrini, spokeswoman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told AFP.

Last year, 75 percent of those who arrived in Italy, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa, sought political or humanitarian asylum, and half of those obtained it, according to UNHCR figures.

The other two-thirds of the thousands of people who flock to Italy and Malta each year are economic migrants seeking a better life in Europe.

Libya has not signed the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees and has no reception centres for political refugees, Boldrini noted.

Speaking on Italian television, Maroni, a member of the anti-immigration Northern League party, said the speedy return of the boat people to their starting point "may be a turning point in the struggle".

If Tripoli continued to take back boat people, "the dispute between Italy and Malta on the intake of illegal immigrants will be resolved because regardless of the waters where the boats are found they will be sent back to Libya from where they left," he argued.

Some 36,900 boat people arrived on Italian shores last year, a 75 percent increase over 2007, according to interior ministry figures.

Arrivals have fallen off this year, with some 3,600 arriving between January and mid-April, but the pace is expected to quicken in the warm summer months, the ministry said.

Tripoli agreed to step up the fight against illegal immigration under a friendship accord between Italy and Libya signed in August 2008. Notably, it said it would take part in joint patrols with Italy.

Maroni said the patrols were to begin on May 15 after a brief period of training for Libyan crews aboard Italian launches.

"On May 15, when the accord will take effect... the problem (of illegal immigration from Libya) will be resolved," Maroni said in late March after more than 600 boat people landed in Lampedusa.

The government meanwhile is pushing fresh legislation through on the issue. It looks set to introduce a new offence of "clandestine immigration" to the law books.

The left-wing opposition on Wednesday likened the proposed new law to the racial purity laws introduced in Italy in the 1920s by the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning