Unlawful pushbacks of migrants at the Italy-Slovenia border
ASGI’s open letter to the Italian Government and UNHCR
ASGI’s letter (in Italian only), August 3rd 2020
On July the 24th 2020, in the Italian Parliament’s lower Chamber, Undersecretary Variati on behalf of the Ministry of the Interior answered urgent questions by MP Riccardo Magi on the situation of the so-called “informal readmissions” of foreign citizens at the border between Italy and Slovenia. The response provided by the government in a note is exceptionally troubling, since it clearly violates principles of domestic and EU law on basic human rights. It should be stressed that the note contains a number of contradictions and provides no legal or case-law grounds for what it asserts.
Before briefly examining the note’s content, it is worth recalling that “readmission” is a simplified procedure allowing a States to send a foreign citizen back at the border to the country s/he came from, when the foreigner does not meet the criteria for admission into the destination country. The basis for these actions is contained in bilateral States agreements, which must not conflict with European and international provisions on movement of people, the right to international protection and fundamental rights.
First of all, the Ministry has openly confirmed that informal readmissions do take place (without any written decision provided to the interested party), which obviously prevents the person to appeal the measure. The Ministry justified this modus operandi by making generic reference to “consolidated practices” of “accelerated readmission procedures”. As already highlighted in the open letter (still unanswered) that ASGI sent to the Government CCing UNHCR on June 5th, the expression “readmissions without formalities” contained in the bilateral Agreement between Italy and Slovenia for the readmission of persons at the border, signed in Rome on September 3rd 1996, certainly cannot be understood as implying no obligation to issue a written decision, as it is indisputable that the action taken by public security with forced accompaniment in Slovenia has effects on the legal situation of the person. Instead, it should be correctly understood in the sense that the procedures for reporting and coordinating readmission operations between the Italian and Slovenian authorities can take place without procedural burdens.
Irrelevance of the application for international protection
The assertion that readmissions by foreign citizens are applied “even if the intention to seek international protection has been expressed” is disconcerting. The right to international protection is a fundamental right and access to the asylum procedure and the identification of the country in charge of examining the application are regulated by EU law, notably by the Dublin III Regulation which states that “Member States shall examine any application for international protection lodged by a third-country national or a stateless person on the territory of any Member State, including at the border and in the transit areas”. The obligation for the Member State to register the application for international protection lodged at the border must be respected in all circumstances, even in cases where the applicant has crossed the border of a Member State irregularly from another Member State. The criteria of competence which establish which country will have to examine the asylum application are precisely indicated in the Regulation which in any case strictly excludes that the principles and procedures contained in the inter-state Readmission Agreements may apply.
Subsequently, the text takes on ambiguous and contradictory tones, reassuring that “all the irregular migrants found are informed, through an interpreter, of the possibility to request international protection”, specifying that a special information booklet is distributed for this purpose. This assertion not only is contradicted by numerous testimonies collected, in Italy and abroad, but in any case would be a pointless exercise, in light of the imminent fate (i.e. readmission) that awaits also those who express their intention to seek asylum. As a further confirmation of this, the ministerial note states that “if the conditions for the readmission request are met and the same is accepted by the Slovenian authorities, there will be no formalization of the request in the police headquarters”. Declaring one’s intention to seek protection therefore produces no apparent legal effect and, consequently, entails no obligation for the Italian authorities, since if Slovenia accepts the readmission application “by completing and sending a special form in which the elements supporting the application are indicated” the foreign citizen is readmitted to Slovenia like those who have not asked for protection, therefore as an irregular foreigner. The note also does not consider that in this case the foreigner would be readmitted to Slovenia as an asylum seeker, thus opening the way to chain rejections as it has already happened in a number of cases.
Risk of “chain” refoulements
In relation to this practice, documented by numerous international reports, the Ministry of Interior merely replies that “Slovenia and Croatia are members of the European Union” and consequently “they are to be considered intrinsically safe countries, in terms of human rights and international conventions on the matter”. ASGI expresses serious concerns about the Slovenian and Croatian asylum systems and, above all, about the possibilities of effective access to the asylum procedure. According to Eurostat data, in the first four months of 2020, Croatia registered 400 applications for international protection, equal to 0.3% of the EU total. In Slovenia there were 490 applications registered against 6840 asylum applications registered in Italy. Furthermore, as already highlighted in the ASGI note of June 5th 2020, the right of States to reject or expel those who are not entitled to enter or remain on national territory, albeit lawful as an expression of the principle of state sovereignty, finds specific limits in that States have not only the obligation to recognize, guarantee and protect the human rights of people under their jurisdiction, but also the duty to respect human rights treaties and not to transform them into ineffective norms. The Italian government cannot pretend to ignore that migrants readmitted from Italy to Slovenia and then from Slovenia to Croatia are subsequently transferred coercively to Serbia or Bosnia-Herzegovina, that these operations take place without any written decisions being adopted and served on the foreigners and that migrants are subjected to brutal violence by both the Croatian police and members of private militias. The practice of chain refoulements was also recently recognized by the Slovenian Administrative Court which on July 16th recognized the unlawfulness of the readmission from Slovenia to Croatia and then from Croatia to Bosnia of an asylum seeker. The Slovenian judge ruled that the police had not informed the interested party of his right to apply for international protection, in clear violation of national and EU law. The readmission also violated the ban on collective expulsion because the applicant was not notified of a removal order, nor was he given legal and linguistic assistance before his readmission to Croatia. As regards chain refoulement, the ruling found “sufficiently reliable reports on the possible risks from the point of view of article 3 of the ECHR” both in Croatia, where the applicant was initially removed, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he was subsequently rejected.
Likely ineffectiveness, against the background above, of a service to assist migrants at border crossings
Lastly, the note ends with the reassurance that an assistance service for foreigners in the province of Trieste will be soon activated and will be operated by CIR (Consiglio Italiano per i Rifugiati). In light of the above considerations (i.e. the substantial uselessness of the application for international protection in order to prevent the readmission mechanism), it is highly questionable whether such a service would have any effectiveness and foreign citizens could access it.
In conclusion, the note with which the Ministry of the Interior made known its position on the so-called informal readmissions of foreign citizens, including asylum seekers, on the Italian-Slovenian border, represents an ideological endorsement of unlawful procedures implemented in total contempt for domestic and EU law. Despite the controversial and sometimes obscure asylum policy in Italy, so far there hasn’t ever been such a flagrant infringement of the legality, one that may make Italian and European institutions face possible responsibilities for violations of fundamental rights taking place on the border with Slovenia.
Due to this very serious situation
ASGI asks the Italian government
- to immediately end the practices of unlawful readmissions at the Italian-Slovenian border;
- to give precise indications to the peripheral government offices to respect the right of asylum and in particular the effective right to access the territory and request international protection adequately;
- to report urgently before the Parliament on the situation at the eastern border by providing all the necessary data and specifically reporting on the operating procedures with which the readmissions have so far been implemented.
ASGI asks UNHCR
- to take an open public position on the note of the Italian Government in relation to the readmissions of applicants for international protection. For understandable reasons related to its mandate, UNHCR often operates through actions of moral suasion that do not take a public dimension. However, situations, such as that covered by this analysis, require that public opinion, institutions and associations have the full right to know UNHCR’s position on such serious events taking place in the territory of the European Union;
- to implement effective direct monitoring of the situation on the eastern border which has so far been completely lacking, in the awareness that the illegal situation described has already led to the rejection of hundreds of asylum seekers and that stopping this situation must become a top priority on the part of the United Nations agency responsible for defending the very existence of the right to asylum.
For further information, please refer to the ASGI note of June 5th 2020 and to the recent dossier “The Balkan Route, migrants without rights in the heart of Europe” by the network “Rivolti ai Balcani”.
Turin, August 3rd, 2020