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Italy beyond the pale

Theresa May holidayed in Italy this summer. One wonders whether she noticed the 95,000 asylum seekers who also travelled there this year, a little less comfortably. If she wonders why so many move on through Europe she should review events of last week, when police evicted hundreds of refugees, including disabled people, pregnant women and children, from a building in Rome, driving them onto the streets. Most were from Ethiopia and Eritrea, where brutality, torture, sexual violence and murder by the state are commonplace. Being forced onto the street by riot police with water cannon must feel sickeningly familiar. But Italy’s police also stand accused of using excessive force against asylum seekers to enforce fingerprinting, including allegations of electrocution and sexual assault.

Italy owes asylum seekers protection, yet thousands of orders to leave the country have been served after hasty processing, to people without resources who do not understand their rights and who become destitute, homeless and vulnerable to exploitation. This week, after thousands marched through Rome in their support, 40 of the most vulnerable were returned to their accommodation, but Italy is teetering to the political right. The Unesco peace prize-winning mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, has just lost his seat to a hotelier who stood independently, saying he “cannot stand seeing migrants swarming everywhere”. There is a general election in 2018, migration is an issue and dark deals are brewing. In July Italy demanded NGOs sign a code of conduct banning them from rescuing refugees in distress in Libyan waters or using lights to signal their position to vessels at imminent risk of sinking. In August Italy deployed its Navy to intercept migrant boats in Libyan waters, defence Minister Roberta Pinotti telling parliament that details of the rules of engagement would be laid down later. She refused to answer questions about where migrants would be disembarked. Under international human rights law, no one intercepted by a European Union-flagged ship can be handed over to authorities where they face the risk of torture. This includes Libya, where the UN has documented evidence of forced labour, starvation, illness, beatings, sexual abuse and torture in immigration detention centres, and a German Foreign Ministry memo stated that migrants are tortured, raped, extorted, executed and banished to the desert ‘daily.’

Libya is not Italy’s first shady refugee deal – in August 2016 co-operation in “migration management” with Sudan led to 40 individuals being ‘repatriated’, interrogated upon arrival by Sudanese Security. One guesses this wasn’t a gentle chat over tea. Europe is also pouring millions into Sudan ‘to curb migration’, money which the former UN representative for Sudan, said is simply “providing more resources to the regime to suppress its own people. (Sudan’s president of 26 years currently faces an International Criminal Court warrant for crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes.)

So, as the Mays pack their swimsuits and fly home, Italy ramps up abuse and refoulement to manage its refugees, Europe hides behind it, and everyone pretends not to see Africa at all. Happy holidays indeed.

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