Italy in breach of international law in treatment of migrants

Case regarding Tunisian migrants could have major effect on EU asylum law

Mmigrants being rescued south of Lampedusa island in the Mediterranean in August. Photograph: EPA

Mmigrants being rescued south of Lampedusa island in the Mediterranean in August. Photograph: EPA


Italy has been found to be in breach of international law over its treatment of migrants, in a case that could have widespread ramifications for EU asylum law.

In a ruling on Tuesday morning, the European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously that Italy was in breach of Article Five of the Convention on Human Rights in its treatment of three Tunisian migrants in 2011.

The case concerns three Tunisian nationals, Saber Ben Mohamed Ben Ali Khlaifia, Fakhreddine Ben Brahim Ben Mustapha Tabal and Mohamed Ben Habib Ben Jaber Sfar, who left Tunisia for Italy in September 2011 during the Arab Spring. Their boat was intercepted and the men transferred to the island of Lampedusa where they were brought to the reception centre in Contrada Imbriacola.

Following protests the centre burnt down and the applicants fled to the village of Lampedusa where they, along with some 1,800 migrants staged a protest.

The three applicants were arrested and transferred to a ship anchored in Palermo harbour where they remained for four days before being deported to Tunisia on September 27th and 29th.

The court ruled this morning that Italy’s treatment of the migrants was in breach of Article 5.1 of the Convention which deals with the right to liberty and security, Article 5.2 which refers to the right of persons to be promptly informed of the charges brought against them, and Article 5.4, the right to a speed decision by a court on the lawfulness of detention.

However there had be no violation of Article 3 which prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment, in respect of the conditions of detention on board the ships, though the court ruled by a majority that the conditions of detention at the reception centre had breached Article 3.

The Court found that the migrants had suffered a “collective expulsion” which is prohibited under Article 4 of Protocol No 4 of the Convention

In its judgment, the Court said that Italy should continue to respond, without exception, to those in distress on the sea and to guarantee their international protection.

It must also put in place measures to allow the capacity at Lampedusa to be increased if needed and to improve facilities at the reception centre. In addition adequate structures should be in place to deal with minors to ensure that they are not detained alongside adults, while all those seeking international protection should be brought to reception centres as quickly as possible.

The judgment comes as Europe struggles to deal with an escalating migration crisis which has seen hundreds of thousands of people entering the European Union fleeing war and conflict in the Middle East and Africa.