ROME (AP) — Human rights advocates are denouncing what they say is Italy's repeated practice of summarily sending back unaccompanied migrant children and adult asylum seekers to face often "appalling" conditions in Greece, after their clandestine arrival at Italian ports aboard ferries.
Human Rights Watch, in a report released on Tuesday, accused Italian border police in several Adriatic ports of failing to adequately screen people in need of protection before sending them back to Greece. The advocacy group said it interviewed 29 children and adults who were summarily returned to Greece, 20 of them in 2012. Most of the children were Afghan boys "fleeing danger, conflict and poverty," said Alice Farmer, children's rights researcher at the group.
Italy's interior ministry, responsible for enforcing immigration laws, didn't respond to requests by The Associated Press for comment. Greece is the European Union's busiest entry point for illegal immigrants and asylum seekers and is struggling to cope with the scale of the problem. Last year, a judge in Greece ruled that the escape of a group of illegal immigrants from facilities in northwestern Greece was justified because conditions there were so bad. Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized Greece for failing to distinguish between genuine asylum cases and those of broader illegal immigration, and they have expressed alarm at the number of unattended minors in the immigrant population.
The European Union generally considers that asylum applications should be considered in the first EU country that a migrant enters. However, the poor conditions in Greece have led many countries to stop summary returns of migrants to that country. Italy has not stopped the returns but says it looks at whether migrants' rights would be violated before deciding to send them back to Greece.
Human Rights Watch insisted that both Italian and international law prohibit the removal of unaccompanied children without a determination that the step is in their best interest. "Yet Human Rights Watch met with 13 children ages 13 to 17 who had been summarily returned to Greece," the group said. "None of them had access to a guardian or social services, as required by Italian and international law."
It said only one child said that he had any kind of age determination — in that case a wrist X-ray, a common method to determine a minor's age. Each year thousands of illegal migrants try to reach Italian shores, often in smugglers' boats, but hiding aboard vehicles being ferried from Greece to Italy.
"Every year, hundreds of people risk life and limb hiding in or under trucks and cars on ferries crossing the Adriatic Sea," said Judith Sunderland, senior Western European researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Too often Italy sends them back to Greece despite appalling conditions there."