Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at the HRW, said on Wednesday that Rome risked preventing genuine asylum seekers from escaping a country where refugees face abuse at the hands of traffickers and detention in squalid camps.
“The Italian navy deployment in Libyan waters could effectively lead to arbitrary detention of people in abusive conditions,” media outlets quoted Sunderland as saying.
“After years of saving lives at sea, Italy is preparing to help Libyan forces who are known to detain people in conditions that expose them to a real risk of torture, sexual violence, and forced labor,” she added.
The New York-based group also said Italy’s Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti had refused to tell lawmakers where refugees intercepted in operations involving the Italian navy would be disembarked.
“This includes pushbacks to Libya or handovers to Libyan forces and applies even if Italy rescues or interdicts people in Libyan territorial waters,” Sunderland said.
“Even if the Italian navy simply provides intelligence to Libyan coast guard forces that leads to the foreseeable apprehension and detention of migrants in abusive conditions, Italy could share responsibility.”
She said such a move “could implicate Italy in human rights abuses”.
“Italy could also be implicated in denying people’s right to leave any country and interfering with the right to seek asylum under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.”
Under human rights law, no-one intercepted or rescued under the control of an EU member state can be handed over to authorities where they face a real risk of ill-treatment or torture.
The warning comes after the Italian parliament authorized a naval mission to help Libya’s coast guard curb refugee flows and reduce the number of people arriving on Italy’s coasts.
Italy is expected to begin the mission by sending a logistics ship and patrol boat as well as mechanics to maintain equipment.
Rome had initially hoped to send six ships into Libyan territorial waters, but the plans had to be scaled back following protests from Tripoli.
Defense Minister Pinotti told the parliament on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s vote that the vessels would only provide technical support and would not infringe on the North African country’s sovereignty.
Some 600,000 mostly African migrants have arrived in Italy from Libya since the start of 2014.
In mid-June, the International Organization for Migration said over 80 percent of the 60,000 refugees who had crossed the central Mediterranean route from crisis-hit Libya to Italy since January had set foot on the Italian territory, while more than 1,500 others had lost their lives in the rough sea.
Smugglers, exploiting the chaos in Libya caused by the 2011 uprising, pack desperate refugees and asylum seekers onto ill-equipped boats, which are usually intercepted by European vessels once they enter international waters.
However, some other boats capsize or become stranded when traffickers remove the engines for reuse. A number of other illegal boats get turned back by the Libyan coast guard.