Salih was only 10 years old when the militia attacked his village in northern Darfur, Sudan. “It was evening. They shot and set fire to our huts. My parents were killed, but I managed to escape.” He arrived alone to Khartoum, where he remained until early this year, when his uncle, who lives in the U.K., sent him money to get there.
It took him over a month to travel through the desert in Libya and then north to the coast, where he paid for the trip through the Mediterranean on an overcrowded boat. “The Red Cross saved us and brought us to land,” Salih told us. He is now 16 years old and is still a child, when I met him in Ventimiglia last July. But instead of being helped to rejoin his uncle, he found himself trapped at the borders of Europe. And instead of finding safety on European coasts, he said he was beaten by Italian police, just hours after the arrival.
After his rescue, Salih and other newcomers were taken by bus to Taranto’s so-called “hotspot.” The hotspot approach, introduced in 2015 on the recommendation of the European Commission, is a system created to identify all newcomers, quickly assess their protection needs and either channel them to the asylum procedures or return them to their country of origin. The crucial point is the collection of fingerprints of all the newcomers in Italy for identification purposes. But people like Salih, who wish to seek asylum in other European countries where their relatives live, have a strong interest in preventing their fingerprint collection by the Italian authorities. If they allow it, they would be sent back to Italy — the country of first entry — if they attempt to continue the journey in the E.U.
“We did not want to provide our fingerprints but four policemen dragged us out of the bus and to the office, where they started beating me,” said Salih. “They hit me at least four times with a baton and then I felt an electric shock on the back. I collapsed and started to vomit. After 10 minutes on the floor, I agreed to provide my fingerprints.”
Salih’s experience is not unique. This summer, I met two dozen refugees and migrants — men, women and children — who have told me they were beaten, shocked with electric batons or threatened by police after refusing to be fingerprinted. A 16-year-old boy and a 27-year-old man described how the police forced them to undress and inflicted with pain to the genitals. A 25-year-old woman told me she was held in Lampedusa for months and slapped repeatedly to push her to provide her fingerprints.
These abuses, which in some cases can be characterized as torture, are the aberrant side effect of Europe’s strategy of “irresponsibility sharing.” While the conduct of most of the police remains professional and the vast majority of fingerprint collection takes place without incident, the detailed results in the new Amnesty International report released Friday raise serious concerns about the behavior of some officers.
The report also highlights the fundamental weaknesses of the immigration policies of Europe. In fact, Europe’s fingerprints are clearly visible at the scene. No one summed up this aspect more clearly than an interpreter who worked in a hotspot, quoted by a 22-year-old man I met: “He explained that we had to give fingerprints; otherwise Italy would receive a fine. They told me that there were other European agents who controlled whether people’s fingerprints were taken. And that those who refused would be beaten by the Italian police.”
The arrival of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, fleeing conflict, human rights abuses and poverty, weighs heavily on Italy, which is leading the efforts to save lives at sea. In the absence of safe and legal access channels to Europe, refugees and migrants have traveled in an irregular and highly risky manner.
In an attempt to reduce the pressure on Italy and other frontline states, the hotspot approach was combined with a resettlement program for asylum seekers in other European Union countries. However, the solidarity component in the hotspot approach has proved largely illusory: To date, 1,200 people have been relocated from Italy, compared with the 40,000 that had been promised, and so far this year more than 150,000 people have reached Italy by sea.
Under the pressure of the European Union, Italy has tried to increase the number of immigrants sent back to their countries of origin. This has also meant the negotiation of readmission agreements with governments that have committed terrible atrocities. In implementation of one of these agreements, last August, 40 people identified as Sudanese were put on a plane from Italy to Khartoum. Amnesty International has spoken to two men from Darfur who were on that flight and were told that the security forces had been waiting for them upon their arrival in Khartoum for interrogation.
The hotspot approach, designed in Brussels and implemented in Italy, has caused serious violations of the rights of desperate and vulnerable people. The Italian authorities have direct responsibility, while the European leaders have policy responsibility. Meanwhile, orphans like Salih are left to fend for themselves. After four days at the Taranto hotspot, Salih was brought to the train station and left there. “No one asked me if I wanted to apply for asylum or anything else,” he said. “I want to leave Italy. I want to be with my uncle and his family in England.”
Matteo de Bellis is a researcher with Amnesty International.