Italy accused of deporting refugees to Greece on commercial ships

Italy accused of deporting refugees to Greece on commercial ships
Selfie of an Afghan asylum seeker detained on a commercial ship. Credit: Lighthouse Reports

The far-right Italian Government has been exposed by the investigative publication Lighthouse Reports of illegally pushing back refugees and migrants to Greece on private commercial ships.

The Amsterdam-based publication has discovered and verified the presence of impromptu detention centres – or what it refers to as unofficial prisons – in the hold of private ships that sail between Italy and Greece.

“As holidaymakers sip on cold beer and cocktails on the deck of a passenger ferry, a buzz of excitement in the air, a very different situation is playing out below deck,” the report states.

It found that asylum seekers are being illegally deported within EU borders – a lesser-known practice of pushback which denies individuals their right to seek asylum – by commercial shipping routes.

Iraqi, Syrian and Afghani refugees have been transported via commercial passenger ships, owned by Greek ferry giant Attica Group, on routes which go between the ports of Venice, Ancona, Bari or Brindisi in Italy to Igmounitsa and Patras in Greece. A journey between the southern Italian city of Bari and the Greek ports can take up to 12 hours, and the conditions of detention are said to be deplorable.

Credit: Lighthouse Reports

According to Greek data obtained by Lighthouse Reports, 157 people were deported from Italy to Greece in 2021, and 74 in 2022 “although experts believe that not all cases are documented,” they clarified.

Broken toilets, luggage holds or cages

Lighthouse Reports has captured and released images of unofficial “prisons” used to detain asylum seekers on three passenger ships travelling Greece and Italy as they are deported, in some cases handcuffed to metal shelves.

Depending on the vessel, asylum seekers were locked up on the lower decks of the ship while passengers above enjoyed their cruise. Lighthouse Reports has uncovered and verified some of these unofficial prisons.

Credit: Lighthouse Reports

Detention centres include locking asylum seekers in former bathrooms with broken showers and toilets, being crammed into luggage holds or enclosed in actual caged metal boxes in the garage room – which became extremely hot during the summer months. “You have only a small bottle of water and no food at all […] We had to stay in that small room inside the ship and accept the difficulties,” one interviewed Afghan asylum seeker said.

Minors have also been deported

According to the report, Greek boat crew members, NGOs and legal experts have all corroborated the findings, saying there have been increasing reports of these illegal practices taking place.

The Lighthouse Reports verified three cases in which under-18s were transported from Italy to Greece, with one case of a 17-year-old alleging that he was illegally sent back without even being asked about his asylum claim.

Credit: Lighthouse Reports

Sara Creta, one of the investigative journalists, interviewed an Afghan refugee who managed to get a selfie of himself while being detained on one of these ships. "I couldn't lie down because of the handcuffs," the man, named Abdulmanan, said. He was put there after being denied the right to apply for asylum in Italy.

On the Superfast II ferry, refugees are locked up with only a cardboard box and a sheet. Some of the images from the cell appear to show people trying to escape by climbing the walls, as well as various graffiti messages.

Covert resumption of activities

The Italian Government has justified the practice by referring to a bilateral agreement with the Greek Government from 1999 – but the deal was never ratified by the Italian parliament.

Under the agreement, Italy is allowed to send back undocumented migrants who had arrived from Greece. But under these circumstances, the deal was applied for illegally deporting asylum seekers, which is not what the agreement stipulates.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in 2014 that Italy had illegally returned asylum seekers through this channel. Since then, the government has claimed that the practice had stopped, having also pushed for official monitoring of its border processes in ports.

Yet Lighthouse Reports, in collaboration with SRF, ARD Monitor, Al Jazeera, Il Domani and Solomon, obtained photographs and testimonies that have uncovered how the practice has quietly continued, at the expense of asylum seekers' rights and international law.

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