Italy denounces UN complaint over refugees



ROME - Italy has demanded an apology from the UN refugee agency in an angry response Tuesday to a complaint that a group of African would-be immigrants were mistreated.
European Affairs Minister Andrea Ronchi said the UNHCR should be ashamed of the "repugnant and false" accusations against Italy's armed forces, which he said had been made without even checking the facts with Rome.



Italy denounces UN complaint over refugees
The UNHCR statement alleged that some of the refugees were injured during transfer to another vessel, that some of their belongings were never returned to them and that their possible refugee status was never checked.
The Italian navy intercepted a boat carrying 82 migrants on July 1 near the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, said the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Italy transferred them to a Libyan ship and returned them to Libya, where UNHCR subsequently interviewed them.
"During interviews UNHCR heard disturbing accounts alleging that force was used by Italian personnel during the transfer to the Libyan vessel," said a statement from the refugee agency.
Six people from Eritrea needed medical attention as a result, it added.
Some of those they interviewed had also said that their possessions, including vital documents, were never returned to them by Italian naval personnel, said the UNHCR.
"Those interviewed spoke of their distress after four days at sea and said that the Italian Navy did not offer them any food during the 12-hour operation to return them to Libya," the statement continued.
"In view of the seriousness of these allegations the UNHCR has sent a letter to the Italian government requesting information on the treatment of people returned to Libya and asking that international norms be respected," it said.
UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond also said: "Based on subsequent interviews, it does not appear that the Italian Navy made any attempt to establish nationalities or reasons for fleeing their countries."
Their inquiries suggested that 76 of the would-be refugees were from Eritrea including nine women and at least six children, he added.
"Based on UNHCR's assessment of the situation in Eritrea and our interviews with the people themselves, it is clear that a significant number from this group are in need of international protection," said Redmond.
Reacting to the allegations, Ronchi said he had "read with amazement the UNHCR's letter, which makes heavy accusations against the government."
He demanded an apology from the UNHCR, calling the allegations "hasty, false, demogogical, offensive and repugnant, hurting our armed forces who show the world their morality, humanity, competence and sacrifice every day."
He said the refugee agency "should be ashamed (for) these repugnant and false accusations," the ANSA news agency reported.
Ronchi added: "What perplexes us the most is that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees would issue a communique without checking the testimony that was gathered with the Italian authorities."
The migrants spent four days at sea before being picked up after sending out an SOS message for help.
The UNHCR has been sharply critical of an agreement between Italy and Libya that allows the Italian navy to intercept illegal migrants at sea and return them to Libya, from where they had often set off for Europe.
The European Commission has also said it will examine the new measures to determine whether they comply with EU norms, warning that "automatic expulsion rules for entire categories are not acceptable."
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Tuesday, July 14th 2009
AFP
           


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