Migration policies in the European Union push authorities in Italy to alleged abuse and deportation of asylum seekers and migrants from Africa. Activists say that Sudanese migrants are often forced to give their fingerprints.
Publishing dozens of migrant testimonies, Amnesty International revealed a significant number of cases in which Italian police used excessive force during the registration of migrants upon their arrival in Europe. Some refugees and migrants alleged being tortured to coerce them to give their fingerprints: including beatings, being shocked by electrical batons and infliction of pain to the genitals.
Forty Sudanese migrants were also illegally deported to Sudan without recourse to proper asylum procedures, and at least one of them – a refugee from Darfur – was beaten by officials on his return, interviewees say in the report Hotspot Italy: Abuses of Refugees and Migrants.
The alleged abuse is the natural outcome of the EU’s new migration strategy, the 'hotspot approach', according to Amnesty International: increased controls on refugees and migrants on their point of arrival in Europe. Identification occurs through obligatory fingerprinting. The approach also means filtering to process the migrants' asylum applications, or repatriating them to their countries of origin.
The approach builds on the Dublin regulation that allows EU countries to return asylum seekers to the first member state they arrived in, a process in which a fingerprint is key.
Interviewing nearly 200 migrants in Italian (port) cities – mostly men – Amnesty International found that the majority of interviewed asylum-seekers and migrants had not refused giving their fingerprints and did not, therefore, report any problems with the relevant procedure to the Amnesty researchers. But a number of individuals had fell victim to torture, electrical batons, or excessive use of force by Italian police in reception centres and hotspots. They mostly came from Sudan and, to a smaller extent, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
'The police were asking us to give the fingerprints. I refused, like all the others, including some women.' – Castro, a 19-year-old migrant from Sudan
Abker, 27, from Darfur arrived in an unidentified Sicilian port at the end of July 2016, after 13 days on a boat that was travelling from Egypt and lost direction at sea. Taken to a big building, he was immediately asked to give his fingerprints. “They took us one by one in a room, where there were at least seven police officers, some seating at a desk. None of them spoke Arabic. Then they took my hand to put it on the machine. I struggled, so they started punching and kicking me everywhere, for half a hour. Eventually they got my fingerprints.”
Sudanese children also reported having been subjected to severe beatings. Ishaq, a 16-year-old boy from Darfur arrived in June 2016 and managed to reach Turin without leaving his fingerprints. Police caught him eventually, but Ishaq refused to give his fingerprints. Five policemen hit and kicked him, he said. “They punched me everywhere and folded my fingers backwards. Some folded my hands towards the fingerprinting machine, others were punching me.”
The Sudanese Djoka (16) fled the conflict in Darfur, which killed his father, and hopes to join his brother in France. He told Amnesty International that after three days of detention, policemen tortured him with an electrical baton in order to get his fingerprints. “At some point also a man, without uniform and speaking Arabic, entered the room… The police then asked me to give fingerprints. I refused. Then they gave me electricity with a stick, many times on the left leg, then on the right leg, chest and belly. I was too weak, I couldn’t resist and at that point they took both my hands and put them on the machine. I couldn’t resist.”
A pregnant 23-year-old Sudanese woman with her two children told the researchers that police officers denied her basic assistance when she suffered from vaginal bleeding. An ambulance to the hospital only arrived at the reception centre when Mariam agreed to the fingerprinting. “[The doctor and interpreter] explained that the bleeding was due to the fact that I had travelled in a tight position, and that the baby was alive only because I reported the problem promptly.”
The report quotes a total of 15 Sudanese men about the electrical batons, torture and threats police used in order to obtain their fingerprints. In dozens of other cases, the police forced hands onto a fingerprinting machine. Some migrant may refuse the procedure in Italy because they wish to travel onward and seek asylum elsewhere in Europe, Amnesty International explains.
'International law and standards require that law enforcement officials must respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons, and in particular, law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary.'
The report acknowledges that Italy has received over 150,000 irregular migrants for each of the last three years and is leading efforts to save lives at sea – the death toll balancing around 3,000 deaths per year.
Amnesty International has informed the Italian Ministry of Interior of these reports and urged the Ministry to respond to the allegations. The Italian police have denied the accusations of torture put forward, AFP reported this week.
The organisation stresses the Memorandum of Understanding on migration, signed between the Sudanese and Italian police authorities in August this year. The Italian police agreed to offer training and equipment. In return the Sudanese police committed to rapidly determining and identifying Sudanese migrants who arrived in Italy, in order to immediately allow for quick repatriation.
Later that month, Italy repatriated a group of 40 Sudanese nationals who attempted to cross the border to France. The bilateral agreement deeply concerns Amnesty International: '…the procedures applied by Italian authorities to issue expulsion orders, described in the previous sections, were not in line with international law, including European human rights law, and that they may have therefore breached the principle of non-refoulement and the prohibition of collective expulsions.'
Sudanese from conflict-affected areas such as Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile States should not be sent back to Sudan, where they would be at real risk of serious human rights violations, or abuses by the security services upon repatriation, Amnesty International stresses. People coming from other areas of Sudan, accused of being opposition or anyway at risk of serious human rights violations for other reasons, must not be sent back to Sudan either.
'Europe needs to share responsibility for protecting refugees and not shift the burden onto receiving countries like Italy.'
Amnesty International is worried that the hotspot approach, in pursuit of the complete identification and registration of all migrants, has pushed Italian authorities to the limits of what is permissible under international human rights law. 'Hasty screening of people who have just stepped off the boats and are still traumatized, without giving them proper advice or information, risks denying them the ability to seek asylum and the protections they are legally entitled to.'
'Sudan govt. used chemical weapons in Darfur': Amnesty Int. (30 September 2016)
Sudan extradites 'leading people-smuggler' to Italy (8 June 2016)