Nigerian migrants rescued from the Mediterranean after they attempted the deadly crossing to Europe last year are suing Italy for violating their human rights by supporting Libya’s efforts to return them to North Africa.
At a press conference on Tuesday, human rights groups said 17 migrants had filed a lawsuit last week with the European Court of Human Rights.
They say that by “subcontracting” migrant rescue operations to Libya, Italy violated the European Convention on Human Rights, which says people should not be subjected to torture, held in slavery, or have their lives put in danger.
This is the first lawsuit to be filed against Italy for its decision to back the Libyan Coast Guard.
Italy and Libya struck the controversial deal in February 2017 to stem the flow of people trying to cross the Mediterranean.
The agreement has been hailed as a success in Italy thanks to an over 80 percent drop in arrivals so far in 2018 compared to the same period last year, according to interior ministry figures.
However, the lawsuit argues that Italy was responsible both for the actions of the Libyan rescuers and liable for the subsequent abuses in Libyan detention centers.
Libya only has the capability to intercept migrant ships thanks to EU funding and support from both the Italian coast guard in Rome and an Italian Navy ship located off the coast of Tripoli.
The lawsuit originates from a search-and-rescue operation on November 6, which saw the German NGO Sea Watch tussle with a Libyan coast guard vessel for the migrants.
Fifty-nine people were rescued and taken to Italy by Sea Watch, while 47 returned to Libya. Among those rescued in that operation were the 17 plaintiffs.
Sea Watch however estimates “at least” 20 people died in the operation and claims the Libyan coastguard “beat and threatened” survivors as they pulled them out of the sea, while some dived back into the water in an effort to reach the Sea Watch boat.
Lawyers prosecuting the case say they want the court to order Italy to pay “moral reparations” and end the agreement with Libya.
According to the rights groups, including Sea Watch, 15 of the claimants are in Italy while the other two are back in Nigeria, after spending time in a Libyan Department of Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) facility.
The UN slammed conditions in these facilities after a visit in November, saying they saw “emaciated and traumatized men, women and children piled on top of one another” and heard reports of people being beaten or jabbed with cattle prods if they asked for food or medicine.
During the first five months of this year, the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted almost 6,000 migrants and refugees. In 2017, the Libyans turned back almost 19,000.
Between 2014 and 2017, more than 600,000 migrants arrived on Italian shores.