Pushbacks within the EU: How Italy uses brute force to offload some of its unwanted migrant arrivals


A new report suggests that migrants and refugees are being pushed back within the European Union from Italy to Greece under what many have described as “inhumane” circumstances. Even though the practice is highly illegal, hundreds of potential asylum seekers seem to have been affected by it in recent years.

A joint report by several investigative media outlets in Europe has found that certain people who come to Italy from Greece in hopes of presenting as asylum seekers are being detained in metal boxes and dark rooms in the hulls of passenger ships and sent back to Greece.

This can last sometimes more than a day, and is reportedly also applied to children and minors. In some cases, the refugees and migrants are reported to even be handcuffed. Among those affected in the last 12 months were scores of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

Lighthouse Reports, a non-profit organization focusing on complex investigative journalism, said that “… people who risk their lives stowing away on ferries bound for the Italian Adriatic ports of Venice, Ancona, Bari and Brindisi in the hope of claiming asylum are being denied the opportunity to do so.”

“Instead, they are detained at the port before being locked up on the vessels they arrived on and sent back to Greece,” the organization further highlighted.

Data provided by the Greek authorities shows that in the last two years, at least 157 people were returned from Italy to Greece this way, while more than 70 are thought to have suffered the same fate in 2020.

However, migration experts believe that not all cases are documented.

Breaking the law for nearly a quarter century

Lighthouse Reports referred in its investigation to these spaces in the hulls of ships as “unofficial jails,” saying they constituted a part of a series of illegal pushbacks that were carried out by Italian authorities. The practice reportedly came into existence already in 1999, when the Italian and the Greek governments reached a bilateral “readmissions” agreement.

Under this policy, Italy is legally allowed to return undocumented migrants who have arrived from Greece back to the country. However, according to the tenets of the agreement, those seeking asylum are excluded and should be allowed to file their claim and have it processed. Italy repeatedly broke this provision, leading to litigation in front of the the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) almost ten years ago:

In 2014, the ECHR already ruled that this kind of return of asylum seekers to Greece was unlawful, as it meant that Italy had denied those affected to lodge a claim for protection. 

After the ruling, Italy claimed repeatedly that it had stopped this practice; however, the joint investigation by Lighthouse ReportsARD MonitorSRFAl JazeeraIl Domani and Solomon revealed that these types of pushbacks continued to take place.

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’

Following the judgment, the ECHR even sent official monitors to Italy to assess border processes at Italian ports for a while; but when it was found that the practice had apparently been stopped, it discontinued the monitoring at the ports. 

It appears that some time after the ECHR monitors had left Italy, the violations were resumed once more.

For its part, the ferry company seemingly responsible for the pushbacks, Attica Group, meanwhile has denied all accusations.

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