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25th Feb 2024

Commission dodges stance on Italian asylum

  • African immigrants are sometimes used as a political scarecrow by the Berlusconi government (Photo: nobordernetwork)

The European Commission on Tuesday (12 May) avoided giving a clear answer about the legality of Italy's recent move to send back African asylum seekers, a policy strongly condemned by the United Nations.

Since last week, Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government sent over 500 African migrants back to Libya, under a new agreement signed with Tripoli allowing Italian authorities to ship them back without first checking if they are asylum seekers.

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned that the move was against international conventions and urged Italy on Tuesday to take the migrants back, as several of them were clearly asylum seekers.

"We are asking the Italian government to readmit those persons who were sent back by Italy and are identified by UNHCR as seeking international protection," the agency said in Geneva.

Libya has no national asylum policy and has been known to deport African asylum seekers to countries of origin, where they risk persecution.

Pressed on the issue, the European Commission declined to answer if the agreement was in line with EU law, as Italian foreign minister and former commissioner Franco Frattini claimed.

"Nobody is challenging the fact that it's a serious problem in the Mediterranean, dramatic for people involved and member states. It is a complex legal issue to which there is no easy answer. But we can't tell you black and white today what the situation is," European Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger told journalists.

Interior ministers are set to discuss the matter again at their next meeting in June, the spokesman for justice and home affairs, Michele Cercone added.

"We have to look at the question of asylum, but also at the source and work with the UNHCR to try make sure that these asylum requests are managed by Libya," he said.

The commission's careful stance on Italy comes at a time when Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right alliance is set to beef up the ranks of the European People's Party in the June elections. The EPP already gave its support to commission President Jose Manuel Barroso for a second mandate starting on 1 November.

Mr Berlusconi made immigration and security his main platform in last year's general elections and seems to be repeating the strategy for the EU poll in June as well. The Italian parliament is also set to adopt an immigration package making irregular immigration a crime and to legalise vigilante "citizens' patrols" in cities to assist police by hunting out and reporting on any "illegal activities" perpetrated by immigrants.

The Italian premier last week said he didn't want Italy to become a "multi-ethnic society" as the left wants – comments which were fiercely criticised by the Catholic church and the opposition.

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