By Jaya Ramachadran
STRASBOURG (IDN) -The 47-nation Council of Europe has faulted Italy for "the presence of racist and xenophobic political discourse" targeting Roma and Sinti, and the protection of the human rights of migrants, including asylum seekers.
The Council's Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, says a racist and xenophobic "type of discourse is a powerful vector of anti-Gypsyism in Italian society and as a result, it also offsets the benefits of social inclusion work for Roma and Sinti carried out around the country."
In a report published in Strasbourg, the Council of Europe's seat, on September 7, 2011 on his visit to Italy in May 2011, Hammarberg expresses concern that there has only been a limited response to his repeated calls for "a greater European role, in the form of solidarity and co-operation in meeting the human rights challenges relating to arrivals of migrants, including asylum seekers, from Northern Africa."
He calls on the Italian authorities "to act urgently to address" the phenomenon of racism and xenophobia. The measures he suggests feature self-regulatory initiatives by political parties and a vigorous implementation of the criminal law provisions against racist offences, some of which, according to the Commissioner "also need to be fine-tuned".
"In order to combat anti-Gypsyism, further efforts are needed to promote knowledge of Roma history and culture," he says, and reiterates that "a wide dissemination and use, notably in schools, of the Council of Europe's Fact Sheets on Roma History would make an important contribution to this endeavour."
Evictions, Violent Hate Crime and Statelessness
The Commissioner's report points to widespread evictions in recent years of Roma and Sinti from settlements in Italy, often in manners that are at variance with human rights standards. "The declared state of 'Nomad emergency' together with the legislation and extraordinary powers flowing from it, have provided the bedrock for the development of these practices, which have had a negative impact on the enjoyment by Roma and Sinti not only of the right to housing, but also of other human rights, including children’s right to education," says the report.
The Commissioner urges the Italian authorities to act in accordance with international and Council of Europe standards in the field of housing and evictions, and to bring the situation fully into line with the revised European Social Charter, in light of the findings of the Committee of Social Rights in its June 2010 decision Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) against Italy.
"Reported instances of anti-Roma violence at the hands of private individuals, but also sometimes by law enforcement officials, point to a continuing need for the Italian authorities to improve their response to racially-motivated violence in general," says the report.
The Commissioner calls on the Italian authorities to respect the relevant Council of Europe standards and use the latter’s extensive guidance on both improving the response of the police to racist offences and on combating racially-motivated misconduct by the police. "In particular, the system for monitoring racist incidents and racist offences could be improved through the introduction of a more flexible and victim-friendly system of reporting and recording relevant incidents," he says.
The report points out that many Roma who came to Italy from the former Yugoslavia in the 1960s and 70s and during the war in the 1990s still live in Italy today without Italian or any other citizenship. Their descendants, whose number is currently estimated at around 15 000, are also de facto stateless in Italy in spite of having been born and lived there all their lives.
The Commissioner urges the Italian authorities to address this situation. He also reiterates his call for the ratification by Italy of the European Convention on Nationality without reservations.
Hammarberg sees a continuing need for a national strategy for the social inclusion of Roma and Sinti in Italy that would provide coherence to and support efforts at regional and local level in this field. As an interim step towards such a strategy, the Commissioner suggests the establishment of a task force at national level, which would support and service a network of regional and local stakeholders that are active in social inclusion work for Roma and Sinti.
"In order to maximise the strategy’s chances of producing long-term results, it should focus more heavily on social inclusion, non-discrimination and combating anti-Gypsyism and less on coercive measures such as forcible evictions and expulsions," says the report.
Human Rights of Migrants
Commissioner Hammarberg has on many occasions called for a greater European role, in the form of solidarity and co-operation in meeting the human rights challenges relating to arrivals of migrants, including asylum seekers, from Northern Africa, but the response has been limited.
The report points out that following the political unrest in Tunisia and the armed conflict in Libya, the number of migrants, including asylum seekers, arriving on boats to Italy, and in particular Lampedusa, has increased sharply.
Since mid-January, approximately 24 000 people have arrived from Tunisia. At the end of March 2011, migrants also started to arrive on boats from Libya – the biggest groups being nationals of Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Ivory Coast, Bangladesh, Eritrea and Somalia – and by June 23, 2011 their number had almost reached 20 000.
In addition to arrivals from Tunisia and Libya, some 2 000 migrants landed in southern Italy on boats coming from Egypt, Greece and Turkey. On June 23, the total figure of arrivals by sea to Italy since January 2011 therefore stood at around 46 000.
"It is clear that these events pose a number of challenges relating to a wide range of human rights, including the right to seek asylum and the right to life, notably in connection with rescue operations at sea. With most of the migrants from Northern Africa seeking refuge and a new life in 'Europe' generally, and not specifically in the countries that they reach first, the European dimension of these challenges is equally clear," says the report.
The ongoing military operations in Libya, and their impact on migratory movements bound to Europe, has lent further visibility to this European and international dimension. The Commissioner stresses the need for Italy to abide by its human rights obligations vis-à-vis all migrants, including asylum seekers, who find themselves within Italy's jurisdiction. This is a responsibility which in the Commissioner's view has not been met fully.
More generally, the Commissioner stresses that a more objective and balanced representation of the migration movements prompted by the events in Northern Africa, and notably the conflict in Libya, would assist in ensuring a human rights compliant response to these phenomena in both Italy and Europe as a whole.
In this respect, the Commissioner notes that the 20 000 arrivals from Libya to Italy mentioned above stand, at least for the moment, in stark contrast with the many times greater forecasts concerning the potential number of arrivals from Libya which had been made publicly in Italy at the beginning of the conflict.
"It is also sobering to note that these arrivals account for around 2% of the persons having left Libya as a result of the conflict. Indeed, 98% of the approximately 1 100 000 people who have left Libya so far have done so by crossing land borders into Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Chad and Algeria," says the report.
The Commissioner also notes that since May 2009, and up to the beginning of the armed conflict in Libya in February 2011, the Italian authorities have carried out operations jointly with Libya in the central Mediterranean, aimed at intercepting migrants fleeing Libya on boats and returning them there (so-called respingimenti, or push-backs).
"The practice has been repeatedly criticised for violating international human rights law, as migrants, including asylum seekers, are returned to Libya where they risk being ill-treated or in turn deported to other countries where they are exposed to such a risk, without being given an opportunity to seek and enjoy international protection through an individual assessment of their case," says the report.
Old Practices to Continue
Indeed, in a case that is currently pending before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, a group of Somali and Eritrean migrants who were travelling by boat from Libya have argued that the decision of the Italian authorities to intercept their vessels on the high seas and send them straight back to Libya exposed them to a risk of ill-treatment there, as well as to a serious threat of being sent back to their countries of origin, where they might also face ill-treatment.
The Commissioner notes that the beginning of these operations started shortly after the conclusion of agreements between Italy and Libya in 2008 and 2009. In his 2009 report on Italy, Hammarberg expressed "his disapproval of bilateral or multilateral agreements for the forced return of irregular migrants to countries with long-standing, proven records of torture", a concern which was shared by the Parliamentary Assembly in June 2010.
In February 2011, following the beginning of the armed conflict in Libya, Italy announced that it had suspended the implementation of its agreements with Libya. However, the Commissioner also notes that on June 17, 2011, Italy signed with the Libyan National Transitional Council a Memorandum of Understanding, which refers to the commitments contained in the agreements previously signed with Libya and provides for mutual assistance and co-operation in combating irregular immigration, "including the repatriation of immigrants in an irregular situation." [IDN-InDepthNews - September 9, 2011]
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