The Council of Europe is asking Italy to explain what its naval ships are doing off Libya's coast amid concerns that Europe-bound migrants who are sent back to Libya face "a real risk" of torture or inhuman treatment.
In a Sept. 28 letter published Wednesday, the council's human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, warned Interior Minister Marco Minniti that Italy again risked violating the European Convention on Human Rights. The convention prohibits exposing people to "torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
Italy announced in July it was sending naval units to Libya's coast to help the local coast guard prevent migrants from leaving. The increased patrols, coupled with Italy-backed deals to use militias on land to prevent would-be refugees from leaving, has greatly reduced the migrant flow to Europe: To date, the number of migrants who reached Italy in 2017 is 25 percent less than 2016, according to Italian interior ministry data.
Aid groups, human rights organizations and media reports have documented the wretched conditions of Libyan detention centers, where physical and sexual abuse of migrants is rampant.
In the letter, Muiznieks recalled that the European Court of Human Rights in 2012 found that Italy had violated the treaty by returning migrants who were intercepted in international waters to Libya.
"The fact that such actions would be carried out in Libyan territorial waters does not absolve Italy from its obligations under the convention," Muiznieks wrote.
He asked for clarification of the type of support Italy is providing Libyan authorities in its territorial waters "and what safeguards Italy has put in place" to ensure that the migrants Italy intercepts and returns are not subject to torture.
There has been no response from Minniti, a spokesman at the Council of Europe said.
Muiznieks reports on rights issues in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. He is fully independent from the 28-nation EU, which has largely welcomed Italy's efforts to stem the flow of migrants despite concern from Amnesty International and other rights groups that the Europe-endorsed policy of trapping migrants in lawless Libya was "reckless."
Italy, like many EU nations, is facing rising anti-immigrant sentiment and has grappled for ways to stem the flow amid resistance from its EU partners to take in new arrivals.