September 21, 2009 / 5:07 PM / 9 years ago

EU should stop Italy forcing migrants to Libya-HRW

* Human Rights Watch says EU must pressure Italy

* Asylum rights denied and migrants treated inhumanely- HRW

* U.N. refugee chief has "strong reservations" about returns

(Adds UNHCR, EU officials paragraphs 9-10, 13-14)

By Daniel Flynn

ROME, Sept 21 (Reuters) - The European Union should demand that Italy stop forcing African migrant boats back to Libya, where would-be asylum seekers are consigned to inhumane camps, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday.

Under a deal with Tripoli, Italy has been intercepting migrant boats in international waters since May and returning them, without screening for asylum applications, to Libya, which has not signed international treaties on refugees.

The United Nations says three-quarters of irregular migrants arriving by sea in Italy last year applied for asylum, and half of them were accepted. Many were from war-torn Somalia or repressive states like Eritrea.

"Italy flouts its legal obligations by summarily returning boat migrants to Libya," said Bill Frelick, refugee policy direct at HRW and author of the report. "The EU should demand that Italy comply with its obligations by halting these returns to Libya."

In its 92-page report, HRW said migrants testified to brutal beatings and overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in Libyan camps. One migrant said a companion was shot dead by Libyans when their boat was intercepted leaving the North African coast.

"We were in a wooden boat and Libyans in a (motorised inflatable) Zodiac started shooting at us ... They kept shooting until they hit our engine. One person was shot and killed," said the migrant, whose real name was not given. "They beat some of our boys until they could not walk."

The New York-based rights group said the EU border agency Frontex had even coordinated some returns. It urged EU states to refuse to participate in any Frontex operations that resulted in the return of migrants to Libya.

The European Union began talks with Tripoli last year aimed at reaching a deal that would include the return of illegal migrants entering the bloc from Libya.

But at a meeting of EU ministers in Brussels to discuss asylum policy on Monday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said there was no system in place in Libya to protect would-be asylum seekers.

"There are detention circumstances that are appalling and there’s an effective risk that people that deserve and need protection will be sent back to their countries of origin," he said. "That’s why we have shown our strong reservations about sending people back to Libya in these circumstances."

The crackdown on illegal immigration by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government has already opened a rift within his coalition.

It also prompted a row last month with the European Commission, which has sought an investigation into the repatriations to Libya after 73 migrants died aboard a dinghy which drifted in the Mediterranean for three weeks.

Berlusconi responded by threatening to block all EU business unless Commission spokespeople were silenced.

EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot said on Monday that the European Union had been working with the U.N. refugee agency to enhance protection for asylum seekers in North Africa.

"Libya cannot offer adequate protection for refugees or asylum seekers under the current context," he said. (Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels; editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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