UN says that taking migrants to Libya by Italian towboat ‘may have been in breach of international law’ (UPDATE)

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Euronews reports that the United Nations say an Italian towboat which rescued more than 100 people in the Mediterranean and returned them to Libya may have been in breach of international law.

A spokesman for the U.N. migration agency said it could not establish the location of the rescue, which is key to establishing migrants’ rights, although some other parties involved in the case have made contradictory assertions about the incident including where it took place.Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms say the Asso 28, an oil rig support vessel rescued them from international waters on Monday and took them to Libya, their country of departure.

Migrants rescued in international waters cannot be returned to a place where their lives are put in danger.Both the UN and European Union have acknowledged that Libya is not safe.Italy’s coast guard initially said on Tuesday that the rescue was coordinated by the Libyan coast guard, and later clarified that the operation had taken place in Libya’s so-called “search and rescue (SAR)” area.The Libyan coast guard was not immediately available for a comment.Libya’s SAR is not clearly defined but is widely understood to extend far beyond its national waters.

A spokesman for the U.N. migration agency said the agency was still investigating the case but confirmed the return of the migrants to Libya.He said the Libyans first told him the rescue operation was carried out by “an unknown vessel”, then changed their version and said the rescuing boat was Libyan.

The head of mission at Open Arms, Fabrizio Gatti, contradicted the Libyan version and said a member of the Asso 28 crew told him over the phone the Italian boat carried out the rescue and was taking the migrants back to Libya. He said he had a record of the conversation.

The Italian government said Tuesday that it had done nothing wrong in relation to the rescue of around 100 migrants by the Italian ship Asso 28, which then reportedly took the asylum seekers back to Libya, because it was not involved in the operation.

ANSA reported that the Italian section of UN refugees agency UNHCR, meanwhile, said Tuesday that it was looking at the case.

“We are collecting all the necessary information about the case of the Italian ship #AssoVentotto, which reportedly took back 108 people rescued in the Mediterranean to Libya,” UNHCR Italia said via Twitter.

Libya is not a port of safety and this act could be a violation of international law”. The European Commission said that it was in contact with Rome about the case. “We cannot comment on the specific case without knowing the details of this operation and under what authority the ships operate,” Commission spokesperson Natasha Bertaud said.

“We are in contact with Italy to find out more”. Bertaud said that the Commission does not generally consider Libya to be a port of safety “given the widespread and serious violations of migrants rights, regularly raised by the national and international organizations for human rights”.

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