taly has started a "Nazi-style" policy of mass migrant repatriations to Sudan based on a secret police cooperation deal, in flagrant breach of international law, human rights groups said on Tuesday.
Last month, Italian police stopped about 50 irregular migrants from Sudan at Ventimiglia, a town on the border with France. They were put in a European Union-funded hotspot detention centre and 48 of them were flown back to Khartoum within a matter of days.
"We are returning people to genocidal governments," the director of Amnesty International's Italian branch, Gianni Rufini, said in Rome. "It's bit like having about 50 German Jews in 1943 and sending them back to Germany," he added.
Rufini spoke at a press conference in the Italian Senate in Rome organized by Tavolo Nazionale Asilo, a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that deal with migration issues and criticize restrictive border policies.
Filippo Miraglia from ARCI, another speaker at the event, qualified Italian authorities' actions as "Nazi-style."
Rufini and others said Sudan cannot be considered a safe country for migrant returns because its president, Omar al-Bashir, is a fugitive from the International Criminal Court, which had him indicted on genocide charges.
At the press conference, the NGOs publicized the story of a man from Darfur who, along with six others, fortuitously avoided repatriation because the plane from Italy did not have enough seats. He was then approached by a lawyer who helped him obtain refugee protection.
According to the man, whose name was not released, he and his peers were made to travel for days on a bus to southern Italy, made to sleep in tents in Taranto, driven back to Milan for identification by a Sudanese embassy official, and then taken to Turin airport.
"I understand the protests, but we have to repatriate irregulars," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said earlier this month, defending the legitimacy of the expulsions and promising to "go even harder" on them.
The Italy-Sudan police agreement that allowed the migrants' return was signed in early August. Salvatore Fachile, a migration rights lawyer, dismissed it as "totally illegitimate" and called on the government to lift confidentiality clauses on them.
Fachile also said he would try to challenge the repatriations before the European Court of Human Rights, which in 2012 already condemned Italy for illegally returning to Libya migrants intercepted in high seas.
But building the case is hard because repatriation victims need to be located and made to sign papers to start the legal action, the lawyer said. "It will be very difficult to get to the bottom of this," he admitted.
Italy is the main landing point for Europe-bound migrants from Africa and the Middle East. According to the International Organization for Migration, just under 132,000 people have landed on its shores in the year to date.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's government has pledged to continue rescue operations in the Mediterranean, but, under pressure from public opinion, it wants to get tougher on repatriating migrants with no asylum rights.
It has also presented proposals, dubbed Migration Compact, calling on the European Union to boost aid to African nations in return for cooperation on stopping migrant flows. The EU has concluded a similar deal with Turkey to stem the inflow of Syrian refugees.