Date: Sat, 17 Jan 98 14:13:28 CST
From: Amnesty International <>
Subject: Boat arrivals in Italy—AI calls on EU govts to protect refugees
Article: 25854

Boat arrivals in Italy—Amnesty International calls on EU governments to protect refugees

News Release Issued by the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, January 1998

Amnesty International is concerned about the fact that the major preoccupation of several governments of the European Union (EU) is to close their borders in order to prevent Kurds from Turkey and Iraq arriving by boat, over recent weeks in Italy, from gaining entry to their territory rather than fulfilling their international legal obligations to provide protection to those who are fleeing serious human rights violations.

In contrast the human rights organisation welcomes the position of the Italian authorities who have made it clear that they intend to grant access to their asylum procedures to any who wish to seek protection.

In the framework of the European Union and Schengen, European governments are currently preparing common programs of action which are reported to be primarily aimed at reinforcing border controls so as to prevent these people reaching their territories. Amnesty International urges European governments to guarantee that any common action plan they will adopt will take full account of the specific protection needs of asylum seekers, will not prevent them from reaching EU territory and will guarantee each asylum-seeker access to fair and satisfactory asylum procedures.


Over a thousand people are reported to have travelled by boat to Italy, mainly from Turkey, since the end of December. Many are Kurds from southeastern Turkey or from Northern Iraq. According to press reports, there are also smaller numbers of people from other countries such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran and Sri Lanka.

Many of these people come from countries where there is a persistent pattern of severe human rights violations. Many may themselves be at risk of such violations if they are forced to return to those countries. To take steps which, directly or indirectly, force people to return to a country where they are at such risk is a violation of the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, which is binding on all EU member states, both in their capacity as states parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and as a matter of customary international law. The principle of non-refoulement is generally recognized to include non-rejection at the frontier, and prohibits a state from rejecting or refusing to hear the claim of an asylum-seeker who applies for asylum at a border post.

Any who claim to be at risk of human rights abuses if returned must be given access to a fair and satisfactory procedure to examine their claim. This procedure must contain all the safeguards necessary to ensure that those who would be at such risk are identified and given effective and durable protection. Governments should not sidestep this obligation under international law by unduly focusing on the alleged spectre of illegal immigration, particularly when there are persistent, severe and widespread human right violations in the countries that many of these people have come from.

Much of the concern expressed by governments has focused on the fact that those who have arrived in large numbers in recent weeks have had their travel organized clandestinely by so-called people-traffickers. But it is no reason for closing borders to them, or for a refusal on the part of states to comply with their normal obligations under international refugee law. People fleeing in fear of their lives or safety are often left with little or no choice—particularly given the obstacles they face in terms of border controls and other measures taken by states to limit access to their territories.

The human rights situation in Turkey

In Turkey, human rights violations by the security forces against the mainly Kurdish population in the southeast continue, with thousands of political killings over the past few years. The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) too, has also been responsible for hundreds of killings of civilians and prisoners, particularly in the early part of the 1990s.

The continuing human rights violations against the civilian population by the security forces include the destruction of villages and consequent displacement of the civilian population, with an estimated two million people now internally displaced. One such incident occurred in mid-November 1997, following an armed clash between the security forces and the PKK near the village of Cinaronu, near Savur in Mardin province. Around 500 soldiers surrounded the village and around 30 villagers were rounded up and held in unacknowledged detention for ten days; some who were later released alleged that those detained were tortured. The village was cordoned off by the security forces, and a number of houses, as well as motor and agricultural vehicles were set on fire. A few days later the village was largely evacuated by the security forces.

Disappearances and extrajudicial executions continue in southeastern Turkey. The most recent case reported by Amnesty International was that of Mehmet Ozdemir, a father of seven who had been detained on several previous occasions over the past six years, and who on 26 December was arrested in a coffee house in Diyarbakir and dragged away by four plain clothes police officers. Despite inquiries by his family he has not been seen since and the authorities now deny that he is being held. His family fears for his life.

These incidents are typical of the persistent pattern of human rights violations in southeastern Turkey but, with the authorities having closed the branches of the Turkish Human Rights Association in Diyarbakir, Mardin and Urfa during 1997, accurate information on human rights violations such as these has become much more difficult to obtain.

The situation of refugees in Turkey

With regard to people originating from countries other than Turkey, the Turkish authorities have been taking steps to prevent them leaving Turkey without authorization. Since late December, Turkish border guards have detained hundreds of people, including people from countries with a pattern of persistent human rights violations, such as Iran, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, as well as Iraqi nationals, attempting or apparently intending to cross the Turkish border to travel to other countries in Europe. According to reports, over 12,000 non-nationals, the majority of them Iraqi Kurds, have been arrested by Turkish border guards in the past year.

Many people fleeing from Northern Iraq, as well as people from Iran, Afghanistan and other countries where there are widespread and severe human rights violations, come to Turkey in the hope of eventually reaching safety in other countries in Europe. They are unable to obtain effective and durable protection in Turkey, because Turkey, although a state party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, operates its provisions subject to a geographical restriction, applying it only to refugees from countries in Europe. The Turkish authorities do not grant protection to non-European refugees, including those recognized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Numerous refugees, including some recognized by the UNHCR, have been forcibly returned by the Turkish authorities to their countries of origin.

The human rights situation in northern Iraq

In northern Iraq, the area which was meant to be established as a safe haven for the Kurds after the 1991 Gulf War has been plagued by fighting between the main Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The area has also been subjected to heavy bombardment by the Turkish air force focusing on PKK targets in the vicinity of civilian areas.

In October 1996 the KDP and the PUK met in Ankara, Turkey, under the sponsorship of the United States, the United Kingdom and Turkey, and signed a cease-fire agreement. But this agreement was broken in October 1997 when fierce fighting broke out again between the parties. At the end of November the parties agreed in principle to a further cease-fire, but the situation remains unstable.

The fighting between the Kurdish parties as well as the bombing by the Turkish air force have caused numerous civilian casualties and led to severe internal displacement of civilians, as people have fled their homes in search of safety.

Amnesty International's recommendations to European governments

With regard to the situation of Kurds arriving in Italy, it is essential that in the various forthcoming meetings among representatives of EU governments, where these issues will be discussed, the governments concerned take full responsibility for observing their international obligation of non-refoulement. In particular in the programmes of action which are expected to be adopted very soon, EU and Schengen states should take into consideration that a number of these people if forced to return to the countries they have fled, may be at risk of serious human rights violations. They should not adopt measures aimed at preventing access to their territories, and should instead take concrete measures to help refugees and give them the protection they need.

1—European governments should address the root causes of the flight of refugees EU Member States should take concrete initiatives in order to improve the human rights situation in the countries of origin of refugees.

2— EU Member States should not take measures which have the effect of obstructing people seeking protection as refugees from arriving on their territory The Member States should ensure that any existing restrictive measures, such as visa controls, interdictive border controls and carrier sanctions, do not in effect prevent asylum-seekers obtaining access to their jurisdiction or asylum procedures. They should guarantee that access to these asylum procedures is not prevented by any further measure they may adopt, such as the cooperation between police and border officials from the EU and third countries.

3—All asylum-seekers should have access to a fair and satisfactory asylum procedure EU countries should grant the possibility to all persons, who wish to apply for asylum, to have their claim examined in a fair and satisfactory asylum procedure. They should guarantee to refugees effective and durable protection against refoulement. This also means that an asylum seekers should be allowed to stay on the territory of the country dealing with their claim until the outcome of the appeal has been finally decided.

4—Asylum-seekers who crossed Turkey before reaching the EU should not be send back to this country In view of the precarious situation for non-European refugees and asylum-seekers in Turkey , and the absence of effective protection for them in this country, Amnesty International is extremely concerned at reports that the EU governments appear to be considering negotiating some kind of readmission agreement with the Turkish authorities*.

5—No refugee should be returned to another area of his or her country of origin unless an examination of his or her individual case shows that the human rights situation there is stable, that the individual can safely reach the area of return, and that he or she will have protection in this area. If any of these criteria cannot be satisfied, there is no internal flight alternative.