The World Council of Churches (WCC) has applauded a landmark decision by the European Court of Human Rights, which held Italy responsible for violating the rights of Eritrean and Somali migrants in summarily sending them back to Libya.
In a WCC statement, the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, the council’s general secretary, called the court ruling a turning point in invoking nations’ responsibilities toward migrants. “There is an increase in the number of people who try to reach the territories of developed countries and claim asylum due to hardships they face in their home countries,” Tveit said. He stressed, however, that this rise in asylum seekers should not be a “pretext for developed nations to undermine the protection of the rights of refugees.”
The Strasbourg ruling was made Feb. 23 in the case of Hirsi Jamaa and Others vs. Italy. The court found Italy responsible for intercepting and returning a boatload of African migrants without determining whether such a decision would put their lives at risk. The court ordered Italy to pay damages to each migrant.
The Somali and Eritrean applicants were among 200 individuals who left Libya aboard three vessels in 2009 for the Italian coast. After being intercepted by the Italian fiscal police and coastguard, the passengers were transferred to Italian military ships and taken to Tripoli, without being informed of their destination. Their personal effects and identification documents were confiscated.
These actions were allegedly part of the “push-back” policies of (then) Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Tveit commended the court’s decision for being consistent with the principle of non-refoulement in international law, a provision that prohibits states from returning asylum seekers to countries or territories where their lives might be at risk.
“The vulnerability of asylum seekers and migrant workers has always been a concern of the WCC,” said the general secretary. “Increasing internal political unrest, coupled with the current financial crisis, has triggered migration by legal and illegal means at an alarming rate.”
The WCC holds that, irrespective of their status as refugees or illegal migrants, asylum seekers are human beings first and foremost. “They should therefore be treated humanely and be allowed to benefit from all internationally recognized human rights standards,” said Tveit.
Added Dr. Mathews George Chunakara, director of the WCC’s Commission of Churches on International Affairs, “This landmark judgment is a sign of hope for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and migrant people around the world who are facing great peril while attempting to reach safe or better havens.”