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The Harsh Dispute Between Salvini and the U.N. on Italy’s Migration Policies

U.N. human rights experts, concerned about Salvini’s new directives on migrants and NGOs, addressed a letter to Italy. He responded in kind.

Matteo Salvini and Beatriz Balbin, Chief of the Special Procedures Branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The U.N. experts' analysis is crystal-clear: “There are reasonable grounds to believe that the Directive, due also to the time of its release, was issued with the aim of directly targeting the search and rescue operations of the NGO boat Mare Jonio, namely by preventing it from accessing Italian territorial waters and ports.” “We are deeply concerned about the approach taken by the Minister of Interior against the Mare Jonio through these directives, which are not based on, and have not been confirmed by, any decision by the competent judicial authority.”

The United Nations has once again pointed fingers at Italy for the country’s migration policies. The new warning came in the form of the May 15 letter signed by Beatriz Balbin, Chief of the Special Procedures Branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The letter was delivered through the Permanent Representative of Italy to the U.N. in Geneva, Gian Lorenzo Cornado, into the hands of Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Enzo Moavero.

This is not the first admonition of this kind: in November 2018, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had harshly criticized several aspects of the security decree delivered by Italy’s Minister of the Interior and far-right League Party’s chief  Matteo Salvini. Under the U.N. experts’ scrutiny, the abolition of the so-called “humanitarian protection,” a form of protection for vulnerable migrants who are not entitled to asylum rights under the current regulations. Last September, Ms. Bachelet had also announced the deployment of a team of inspectors in Italy to “assess the reported sharp increase in acts of violence and racism against migrants, persons of African descent, and Roma,” she stated.

Between the first warning and the most recent one, Mr. Salvini has issued two new directives to put an end to the search-and-rescue activities carried out by NGO boats in the Mediterranean Sea — and stop those pursued by “Mare Jonio,” a ship run by the Italian NGO “Mediterranea.” With his second security decree, Mr. Salvini aims to impose expensive economic sanctions on those who rescue migrants at sea and fail “to respect the obligations established by the International Conventions.”  The decree set fines amounting to up to 5,000 euros for each migrant transported (this provision has been removed in the last review), and prescribed, for the repeated instances, the suspension or revocation of the license for up to 12 months if the ship flies Italy’s flag.

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that the Directive, due also to the time of its release, was issued to directly target the search and rescue operations of the NGO boat Mare Jonio, namely by preventing it from accessing Italian territorial waters and ports,” the U.N. human rights experts highlighted. “We are deeply concerned about the approach taken by the Minister of the Interior against the Mare Jonio through these directives, which are not based on, and have not been confirmed by, any decision by the competent judicial authority,” they continued.

According to the United Nations, the decree’s reference to international law is too vague. “While we appreciate the reference made to international standards in the Directive,” the experts explained, “we wish to draw the attention of your Excellency’s Government to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” The latter prescribes that “every State has the duty to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost.”

Last June, the Libyan Government of National Accord launched Tripoli’s own “Search and Rescue Zone” (SAR), an area where war-torn Libya is responsible for carrying out search and rescue operations and preventing migrants from reaching Europe. The move has controversially legitimized the withdrawal of some European NGO rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean Sea. It also paved the way for the criminalization of those rescuers who refuse to hand over migrants to the Libyan Coast Guard officials.

But above all, the U.N. experts claim, Salvini’s security decree fails to take into account the principle of non-refoulement laid down in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that signatories cannot return migrants to a country where they face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or punishment and other irreparable harm. “In April 2019, following the escalation of military action in Libya, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights stressed that Libya is not a safe port of returning and called on the European Union and its members to swiftly and collectively implement a coherent, human rights-based response to maritime migration from Libya”, the U.N letter notes.

Those recommendations do not appear to have troubled Mr. Salvini, who called upon the United Nations to focus on what he described as more pressing issues, such as the Venezuelan crisis. “An international body, that costs taxpayers billions of euros, and has among its members North Korea and Turkey —autocracies — lecturing Italy about human rights and me about the security decree; it is so hilarious,” he said. Sources from the Ministry of the Interior later clarified, with a hint of sarcasm, that Mr. Salvini “didn’t undervalue the letter from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, especially in the light of its competence and the U.N.’s authority on this matter — which is attested by some of the U.N. member states, such as Turkey and North Korea.”

In a subsequent press release,  the office of the High Commissioner confirmed the United Nations’ stance on Italy’s migration policies: the right to life and the principle of non-refoulement should always prevail over national security concerns. The United Nations urged Italian authorities to stop jeopardizing the lives of hundreds of thousands of migrants, including refugees and victims of human trafficking. Italy’s approach is not in line with international law and international humanitarian law, the U.N. experts said.

Meanwhile, subsequent amendments to Salvini’s second security decree tightened up the fines for NGOs rescuing asylum-seekers without cooperating with relevant authorities but removed the sanctions for each migrant transported.

During the daily press briefing at the U.N., La Voce di New York asked Stéphane Dujarric, the Secretary-General’s spokesperson, to clarify Mr. Guterres’s standpoint on this matter. “The Special Rapporteurs play a very critical and important role within the human rights architecture in the U.N., but obviously they are independent,” he said referring to the U.N. experts who drafted the letter. Mr. Dujarric also highlighted that, without getting into the specifics of the Italian law, “SG’s message to every world leader is consistent — it’s about how the international law that relates to the protection of refugees should be respected, and it has been signed on to by all the signatories of the Refugee Convention, and that refugees and migrants need to be treated with dignity and respect of human rights and with solidarity.”

Asked whether the United Nations and the Secretary-General are putting enough pressure on the Italian government, Guterres’ spokesperson stated, “I think that the SG’s position and the message he sends to the world leaders on refugees, on migrants, is clear and unequivocal, and that is the message he sends around the world.” He then stressed once again the consistency of the Secretary-General’s stance when it comes to migration issues. “Every country has its own internal debate and different policies. Our position, and SG’s position — which frankly is the same in public and private — has remained unchanged,” he said.

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