The United Nations refugee agency accuses Italy of forcibly deporting asylum seekers to Libya.  The UNHCR says more than 80 people, most from Eritrea, were intercepted by the Italian Navy on July 1.  It says the asylum seekers were picked up near the Italian island of Lempedusa, transferred to a Libyan ship and later transported to Libya. 

The U.N. refugee agency says the group of asylum seekers was placed in detention centers upon their arrival in Libya.  It says 76 of the 82 people intercepted at sea by the Italian navy originate from Eritrea, including nine women and at least six children. 

UNHCR staff who interviewed the group, say it seems the Italian Navy did not try to establish the peoples' nationalities nor their reasons for fleeing.

UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond, says based on an assessment of the situation in Eritrea and from the interviews carried out, it is clear that a significant number of these people are in need of international protection.

"During interviews UNHCR heard disturbing accounts alleging that force was used by Italian personnel during the transfer to the Libyan vessel," Redmond said. "According to these allegations, six people from Eritrea needed medical attention as a result. the individuals also alleged that their personal effects, including vital documents, were seized by the Italian Navy during the operation and have not yet been returned to them.  Those interviewed also spoke of their distress after four days at sea and said that the Italian Navy did not offer them any food during the 12-hour operation to return them to Libya."  

Forcible deportation of asylum seekers is against international law.  And, the U.N. refugee agency is concerned that Italy's new policy on asylum seekers may be in breech of this norm. 

Italy introduced a so-called push-back policy in early May.  Since then, at least 900 people trying to reach Italy by sea have been sent to other countries, mainly to Libya. 

Until this new policy was introduced, Redmond says Italy had a good record regarding asylum seekers.  He says Italy had rescued thousands of people in distress in the Mediterranean Sea, providing assistance and protection to those in need.

"UNHCR has expressed serious concerns about the impact of this new policy which, in the absence of adequate safeguards, can prevent access to asylum," Redmond said.  

Redmond says the UNHCR takes the allegations of mistreatment by the Italian Navy very seriously.  He says his agency has sent a letter to the Italian Government asking for information on the treatment of people returned to Libya and asking that international norms be respected.