Unaccompanied Children, Asylum Seekers Should Not Be Turned Away
Human Rights Watch Press release
Italy is summarily returning unaccompanied migrant
children and adult asylum seekers to Greece, where they face a
dysfunctional asylum system and abusive detention conditions, Human Rights
Watch said in a report published today.
Stowaways on ferries from Greece,
including children as young as 13, are sent back by Italian authorities
within hours without adequate consideration of their particular needs as
children or their desire to apply for asylum.
report, “Turned Away: Summary Returns of Unaccompanied Migrant
Children and Adult Asylum Seekers from Italy to Greece,”
documents the failure of Italian border police at the Adriatic ports of
Ancona, Bari, Brindisi, and Venice to screen adequately for people in need
of protection, in violation of Italy’s legal obligations.
Rights Watch interviewed 29 children and adults who were summarily returned
to Greece from Italian ports, 20 of them in 2012.
year hundreds of people risk life and limb hiding in or under trucks and
cars on ferries crossing the Adriatic Sea,”
said Judith Sunderland,
senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Placed in the custody of the captains
of commercial ferries, adults and children alike are confined on board
ships during the return journey to Greece in places such as makeshift
holding cells or engine rooms and sometimes denied adequate food.
Back in Greece, unaccompanied children and asylum seekers, like all
migrants, are vulnerable to law enforcement abuse, degrading conditions of
detention, and a hostile environment marked by xenophobic violence, Human
Rights Watch said. Ali M., an Afghan boy who was 15 when he was returned
from Italy to Igoumenitsa, Greece, in March 2012, said Greek police took
him to a detention facility outside the port and detained him for over two
weeks with unrelated adults in squalid conditions without adequate food.
Italian and international law prohibit the removal of
unaccompanied children without a determination that it is in their best
Yet, Human Rights Watch met with 13 children ages 13 to 17 who
had been summarily returned to Greece.
None of them were given access to a
guardian or social services, as required by Italian and international law.
Although Italian government policy is to give an individual who
claims to be a child the benefit of the doubt, Human Rights Watch research
indicates that this policy is not being followed.
Only one of the children
interviewed had any kind of age determination examination, in his case a
Ali M., for example, was returned without an age
“I told them I was 15, they didn’t listen. They
put me in the ticket office and then on the boat.”
practices require a multi-disciplinary approach to evaluating age and that
any medical testing be non-intrusive. Access to a guardian and social
services and proper age assessments can only be carried out when children
are admitted to the country.
“Most of those we met were
Afghan boys fleeing danger, conflict, and poverty,”
Farmer, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Italy needs to take responsibility for providing them the special
protection to which they are entitled as children.”
Sending adult migrants back to Greece without giving them the opportunity
to lodge asylum claims also violates national and international
While Italy has the right to enforce its immigration laws,
asylum seekers must be allowed to exercise the right to lodge asylum
claims, and no one returned should be exposed to risks of torture or
Overwhelming evidence of chronic problems with
Greece’s asylum system and detention conditions has led to landmark
European court rulings barring returns to that country under the Dublin II
Regulation, which generally requires the first EU country of entry to
process an asylum claim. Numerous EU countries have suspended transfers of
asylum seekers to Greece as a result.
Italy has not suspended
Dublin transfers to Greece but claims to assess the risk of rights
violations when considering whether to do so.
But its summary returns from
the ports contradict this policy.
Most people interviewed said
they had not had a chance to express their desire to apply for asylum,
while five said their pleas to do so were ignored by port police officers.
According to Bari border police, only 12 out of almost 900 migrants
detected at the port between January 2011 and June 2012 were allowed to
remain in Italy.
“Some asylum seekers may not want to
apply for asylum in Italy, even if given the chance, because they are
convinced that their prospects for protection and integration are better in
other European countries,”
“But those who do
want to apply for asylum should not be turned away.”
Nongovernmental organizations with contracts to provide services and
information to migrants detected at the ports do not have systematic access
to them, leaving decisions about who is allowed to remain in Italy in the
hands of border police.
None of those interviewed had been given access to
nongovernmental groups or information about their rights and about applying
Only seven had been assisted by an interpreter.
“The whole point of authorizing nongovernmental groups to provide
services at the ports is to ensure that migrants’ rights are
“But they can’t do their job
if they don’t have access to all arriving migrants, and those in need
are falling through the cracks.”
The European Court of
is expected to issue a judgment soon in the case of Sharife
and Others v. Italy and Greece involving the 2009 summary return of 25
adults and 10 children who contend that the return violated their right to
life and to protection against torture or ill-treatment, and to an
The Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Nils
the UN special rapporteur on the rights of migrants,
have both urged Italy to refrain from
summary returns to Greece.
Human Rights Watch recommended a
number of changes in Italy’s procedures, including:
Suspend immediately the summary returns to Greece;
* Permit those
reaching Italy who claim to be unaccompanied children, without exception,
to stay and benefit from the specific protections guaranteed under Italian
law, pending a properly conducted age determination;
screen adults to identify those with special vulnerabilities and those who
wish to apply for asylum or otherwise have protection needs;
Provide full access to all arrivals for authorized nongovernmental
organizations so they can provide legal and humanitarian assistance;
* Provide ferry companies with clear guidelines for shipmasters on humane
and safe treatment of stowaways when discovered on board and during returns