Reportage. Hundreds of refugees were returned to Libyan detention camps to face death and torture after the intervention of private Italian ships in 2018. We investigate the Italian role in these mass rejections.

‘We will take you to Italy, now sleep’ – the secret shame of Italy’s mass returns

On July 30, 2018, the Italian ship Asso Ventotto rescued 101 people and then returned them to Libya. The freighter supports a platform belonging to Mellitah Oil & Gas (a company 50% owned by ENI). How long did the Italians care? Only about 48 hours, time enough for a few newspaper articles and for a complaint to the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Naples (where the ship’s owner is headquartered). Then, nothing.

I was interested in the fate of the victims: where they were, who they were. So, a year ago, I decided to look for them in the Libyan camps. I didn’t manage to find them, but I tracked down other people—many others—who said they had also been rejected to Libya by an Asso vessel. This seems to have happened a month before the infamous case, on the night between July 1 and 2, 2018.

It was a collective rejection on an enormous scale (we are talking about 276 people), never declared by the Italian government or by the ship’s owner, Augusta Offshore, yet recorded in one of the Arabic-language reports that the Libyan Navy posted online with great punctuality at the time: “The tugboat Asso was sent to support the patrol and provide assistance.”

Young Ato Solomon (the names used are all pseudonyms) told us that there were several hundred people aboard the Asso, mostly Eritreans and Sudanese. Many were minors, like him. There were also many women, some pregnant or with small children. They immediately asked for protection, and the captain reassured them: “We will take you to Italy. Now, sleep.” The next morning, they were disembarked at the port of Tripoli in the presence of the IOM and locked up in several camps.

It was not easy to find them all. The minors were in the Zintan detention camp, exhausted by hunger and disease. Bert told us the guards only brought them food every five days. Many died on the floors, which are crawling with maggots. A lot of women were in Triq al Sikka. Kissa, in her twenties, told us that the guards deliberately removed her name from the UNHCR evacuation lists, as they did with others as well—in particular, a Somali underage woman who had been locked in a women’s cell for two years, and was five months pregnant.

The men’s hangar was even worse: a completely dark cell was being used for torture. In the Sabaa camp, Eden and Jim, husband and wife, separated by a wall, had not seen each other for a year. Then, there was Dahia, who gave birth to little Loni a month after they were rejected back to Libya—a baby who was miraculously healthy. Josi was one of those who were gone: he had died on the floors in Zintan, and no one knows where his body ended up.

So many people, so many stories. Today, there is a whole collective of activists working on the case (one that I am part of): the Josi & Loni Project. The group collects testimonies and sends out appeals for the evacuation of the many victims who are still in Libya two years later. It also follows the few who have managed to arrive in Europe, by their own means or via humanitarian corridors. These people, who were denied the right to seek asylum in Italy in 2018, have now obtained refugee status and have found lawyers. The tragic story of the injustice they suffered has finally become a legal case.

In this turmoil, major players are missing in action: namely, the institutions. The UNHCR has so far ignored a request for information made by the representatives of the refugees. The first Conte government didn’t answer the parliamentary question, submitted to the Chamber of Deputies in July 2019, asking for information on the two mass rejections perpetrated by the Asso ships, and the Ministry of Transport led by Toninelli (M5S) refused the requests from civil society to access the distress calls received and the consequent actions taken by the National Center for the Coordination of Rescue at Sea.

The second Conte government brought no improvement: the ministry, now led by De Micheli (PD), reiterated the denial of access to this information for civil society. The motivation has not changed between one government and the next: “NATO and national operational-exercise activities,” which also include search and rescue activities, as well as defense-related activities and anything that may affect international relations with other states (“in particular with the Libyan government,” they write) must not be made available to civil society.

To sum up: on one hand, the Italian state is invoking state secrecy to keep a secret mass rejection perpetrated by a private party confidential, and on the other hand it includes all search and rescue activities among military matters. Questions still remain: was this really an autonomous initiative by the private Asso ships, or is an attempt being made to hide the fact that the responsibility lies elsewhere? Augusta Offshore, whom we contacted, was unwilling to clarify the chain of responsibility or make any statements.

Lucia Gennari, attorney for ASGI, confirmed to us that the Ministry of Transport is now refusing any access to information by civil society on cases concerning search and rescue activities in the stretch of sea between Italy and Libya. Another major obstacle, she explained, is the difficulty in representing the victims in Libya. Receiving the legal power of attorney from a refugee locked up in Trik al Sikka, Zintan or other camps is practically impossible. There are some cases, such as the illegal collective rejection by the Orione vessel in 2009, which made to court only because the victims were in Europe and Israel. The sentence in this case, passed on October 2019—the second major milestone after the Hirsi case—condemned the Italian government to pay compensations and readmit to Italy the refugees deported to Libya by the military ship Orione.

Does the fact that the Asso ships are private vessels complicate matters? No, Lucia Gennari explains: even the private sector is bound by the obligation to rescue at sea, the obligation to disembark shipwrecked people in a safe place and the prohibition against collective migrant rejections. Furthermore, at issue is the act of transporting people to places where the violations of human rights are so serious and so well-known.

After the government denied access to information, activists likewise turned to a private party: a website that monitors ship activity. They paid a few euros and received the route plan of the Asso ships, which between July 1 and 2, 2018 made changes in their declared destinations, performed turns and long stops in the middle of the sea. These movements match the stories of the victims.

Between the unwillingness of the Italian government, the indifference of international organizations and the no-comment from Augusta Offshore, this case will be brought to court, and we will spend the next few years having a discussion about human rights. Meanwhile, the humans involved are still in Libya. Jan, after Josi, was another one who died of starvation on the floor of a detention camp. In Triq al Sikka, Kissa organized a protest with other women, asking the UNHCR to evacuate them, but it was not successful.

15-year-old Cris is staring at the sea every day, and is waiting to get on an inflatable boat that is not leaking air too much. 16-year-old Sid got seriously ill, and Bert and Jack, both aged 15, looked after him like a son, giving him the little food they had and staying night and day at his bedside. The boy tried to kill himself because he felt that he was a burden, but his friends stopped him. They have no rights, but they’re human.

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