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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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

Rescue at Sea

Summer, with its fair weather and calmer seas, often brings an increase in the number of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum in Europe. But this year the numbers have grown by a staggering amount. In the month of June, the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation picked up desperate passengers at a rate of more than 750 per day.

In late June, UNHCR photographer Alfredo D'Amato boarded the San Giorgio, an Italian naval ship taking part in the operation, to document the rescue process - including the first sighting of boats from a military helicopter, the passengers' transfer to small rescue boats and then the mother ship, and finally their return to dry land in Puglia, Italy.

In the span of just six hours on 28 June, the crew rescued 1,171 people from four overcrowded boats. Over half were from war-torn Syrian, mostly families and large groups. Others came from Eritrea and Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Bangladesh and beyond. D'Amato's images and the interviews that accompanied them are windows into the lives of people whose situation at home had become so precarious that they were willing to risk it all.

Rescue at Sea

Rescue at Sea on the Mediterranean

Every year tens of thousands of people risk their lives by crossing the Mediterranean on overcrowded and often unseaworthy boats in a bid to reach Europe. Many of them are fleeing violence and persecution and are in need of international protection. Thousands die every year trying to make it to places like Malta or Italy's tiny Lampedusa Island. It took the loss of some 600 people in boat sinkings last October to focus world attention on this humanitarian tragedy. Italy has since launched a rescue-at-sea operation using naval vessels, which have saved more than 10,000 people. Photographer Alfredo D'Amato, working with UNHCR, was on board the San Giusto, flagship of the Italian rescue flotilla, when rescued people were transferred to safety. His striking images follow.

Rescue at Sea on the Mediterranean

Italy: Desperate Rescue at SeaPlay video

Italy: Desperate Rescue at Sea

Tens of thousands are fleeing from the North African coast, seeking safety in Europe via a dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossings. Many are Syrian refugees, many others come from Sub-Saharan Africa - all risk their lives.
Italy: Haunted by a Sinking Ship Play video

Italy: Haunted by a Sinking Ship

"Every time I try to sleep I see what I saw in the water, what happened to me, the dead children" Thamer & Thayer, brothers from Syria, escaped war, then unrest in Libya only to be faced with death on the Mediterranean The Lampedusa boat tragedies sparked a debate on asylum policies in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch a search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea. Called Mare Nostrum, the operation has rescued more than 63,000 people.
Italy: Mediterranean RescuePlay video

Italy: Mediterranean Rescue

The Italy Navy rescues hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers on the high seas as the numbers of people undertaking the crossing of the Mediterranean from North Africa grows.