The UN has heavily criticised Italy’s decision to turn away boatloads of African migrants at sea, sending them back to Libya.
The condemnation came after more than 200 migrants were picked up in small boats off Malta.
Normally, illegal immigrants approaching Italy are brought on shore, identified and allowed to petition for asylum.
But Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni defended the move. “As I said, they were in international waters and we have applied the principle of rejection well before the border. For us, this completely satisfies international treaties,’‘ he told reporters.
Rome says Libya’s acceptance of the migrants could mark a turning point in the fight against illegal immigration, but the UN fears genuine asylum seekers may have been sent back.
UNHCR officer Laura Boldrini said: ‘‘The principle of non-rejection, which is the basis of the Geneva Convention and therefore international refugee law is valid everywhere, even outside territorial waters.’‘
While nearly 37,000 people landed on Italian shores last year – a 75 percent increase on 2007 – the UN is calling on Italy and Malta to guarantee the rights of asylum seekers.