Landmark judgment of the Strasbourg Court on push-backs in the Mediterranean Sea

Press Releases, 23 February 2012

STRASBOURG: The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has today issued a decision concluding that Italy violated the European Convention of Human Rights by intercepting and returning to Libya in 2009 a group of Somalis and Eritreans without examining whether this would constitute a real risk to their lives. The case is known as Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy.

The UN Refugee Agency believes this judgment provides important guidance to European states in their border control and interception practices, representing a turning point regarding state responsibilities and the management of mixed migration flows.

As an intervener in the case, UNHCR highlighted the obligation of states not to forcibly return people to countries where they face persecution or serious harm. This is known as the 'non-refoulement principle'. In its submission to the Court, UNHCR underlined that, given the situation prevailing in Libya at that time, push-back policies undermined access to protection and the principle of 'non-refoulement', which also applies on the high seas.

UNHCR appreciates the challenges that irregular migration poses to Italy and other EU countries and acknowledges the significant efforts made by Italy and other states to save lives in their search and rescue operations.

UNHCR advises that people rescued or intercepted at sea are, very often, more vulnerable than other asylum-seekers, both physically and psychologically, and therefore unable to declare their intention to apply for asylum immediately after their interception at sea. UNHCR recommends that border control measures should provide for access to the territory of persons in need of international protection.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • Laura Boldrini in Rome boldrini@unhcr.org, +393355403194

  • William Spindler in Paris spindler@unhcr.org +33623161178

  • Sybella Wilkes in Geneva wilkes@unhcr.org +41227397968

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