Police in Italy have subjected refugees and migrants to serious ill-treatment, including beatings, electric shocks – and have even used pliers on one man’s testicles – to force them to be fingerprinted under an EU-sponsored scheme to process refugees and migrants in the country. In some cases, this treatment may amount to torture.
These shocking claims are revealed in a new Amnesty report into the so-called “hotspot approach”, introduced last year and designed to identify and fingerprint newly-arrived refugees and migrants at the point of entry to the EU. The scheme aims to swiftly assess the protection needs of new arrivals and either process their asylum applications or return them to their country of origin.
Amnesty’s 56-page report, Hotspot Italy: How EU’s flagship approach leads to violations of refugee and migrant rights, is based on interviews with more than 170 refugees and migrants and reveals serious failures at each of these stages.
Amnesty International’s Italy Researcher Matteo de Bellis said:
“In their determination to reduce the onward movement of refugees and migrants to other member states, EU leaders have driven the Italian authorities to the limits – and beyond – of what is legal.
“The result is that traumatised people, arriving in Italy after harrowing journeys, are being subjected to flawed assessments and in some instances appalling abuse at the hands of the police, as well as unlawful expulsions.”
In a supposed effort to reduce the pressure on countries like Italy and Greece, the hotspot approach was twinned with a scheme to relocate asylum-seekers to other EU member countries. However, this so-called “solidarity component” has proven largely illusory: 1,200 people have been relocated from Italy so far, out of the 40,000 that had been promised, while more than 150,000 people have reached Italy by sea this year.
Fingerprinting by force
The hotspot approach requires Italy to fingerprint all new arrivals. However, those wanting to claim asylum in other European countries – perhaps because they have relatives there – have a strong interest in avoiding being fingerprinted by Italian authorities so they are not sent back to Italy under the EU’s so-called Dublin system.
Under pressure from EU governments and institutions, Italy has introduced coercive practices to obtain fingerprints. Amnesty has received consistent accounts showing that arbitrary detention, intimidation and excessive physical force have been used to coerce newly-arrived men, women and even children into fingerprinting. Of the 24 testimonies of ill-treatment collected by Amnesty, 16 involve beatings. A 25-year-old woman from Eritrea described how she was slapped repeatedly in the face by a policeman until she agreed to be fingerprinted.
In several cases, refugees and migrants also claimed that they had been subjected to electric shocks with stun batons. A 16-year-old boy from Darfur described his ill-treatment to Amnesty:
“They gave me electricity with a stick, many times on the left leg, then on 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.”
Another 16-year-old boy and a 27-year-old man claimed police sexually humiliated them. The man told Amnesty how police officers beat and subjected him to electric shocks before making him strip and using a pair of three-pronged pliers on him:
“I was on a chair made of aluminium, with an opening on the seat. They held [my] shoulders and legs, took my testicles with the pliers, and pulled twice. I can’t say how painful it was.”
While the behaviour of most Italian police remains professional and the vast majority of fingerprinting takes place without incident, the findings of this report raise serious concerns and highlight the need for an independent review of current practices.
Screening and expulsions
Under the hotspot approach, new arrivals in Italy are screened to separate asylum-seekers from those considered irregular migrants. This means that people, often exhausted and traumatised from their journeys and without access to adequate information or advice on asylum procedures, have to answer questions with potentially profound implications for their futures. One 29-year-old Nigerian woman told Amnesty, “I don’t even know how we got here, I was crying…I saw so many police, I was scared…My mind was far, I couldn’t even remember the name of my parents.”
Police are required to ask new arrivals to explain why they have come to Italy, rather than simply asking them if they intend to seek asylum. Since refugee status is not determined by the reasons a person has entered a country but by the situation they would face if returned to their country of origin, this approach is fundamentally flawed. On the basis of this extremely short interview, police officers who lack the appropriate training are in effect making a decision on the individual’s protection needs. Those not judged to have a claim for asylum are issued with expulsion orders – including through forced repatriation to their country of origin – that may expose them to serious human rights violations.
Under pressure from the EU, Italy has sought to increase the number of migrants it returns to their countries of origin. This has included negotiating readmission agreements with countries with appalling human rights records.
One such “Memorandum of Understanding” was signed between the Italian and Sudanese police authorities in August, allowing for a summary identification process that, in certain circumstances, may even take place in Sudan after the expulsion has been carried out. Even if the identification takes place in Italy, it is so superficial, and so heavily delegated to the Sudanese authorities, that it does not allow for an individualised determination that a person will not be at real risk of serious human rights violations upon return.
This has already led to cases of unlawful expulsions. On 24 August, 40 people identified as Sudanese nationals were put on a plane to Khartoum from Italy. Amnesty spoke to a 23-year-old man from Darfur who was on this flight and described how security forces were awaiting his arrival in Khartoum:
“They took us to a special area in the airport. I saw one man beaten…We were interrogated one by one…Now I am afraid if the security is searching for me or if they find me, I don’t know what will happen to me.”
Matteo de Bellis said:
“The hotspot approach, designed in Brussels and executed in Italy, has increased, not decreased, the pressure on front-line states. It is resulting in appalling violations of the rights of desperately vulnerable people for which the Italian authorities bear a direct responsibility and Europe’s leaders a political one.
“European nations may be able to remove people from their territory but they cannot remove their obligations under international law. Italian authorities must end violations and ensure that people are not sent back to countries where they are at risk of persecution or torture.”
Amnesty has undertaken four research trips to Italy in 2016, interviewing refugees and migrants and meeting authorities and NGOs in Rome, Palermo, Agrigento, Catania, Lampedusa, Taranto, Bari, Genoa, Ventimiglia and Como. The research team conducted 174 interviews with refugees and migrants, and shorter conversations with many more.
Amnesty has repeatedly sought clarifications and asked to discuss the concerns detailed in the report with Italy’s Minister of Interior. The organisation has yet to receive an answer.