Italian police allegedly beat, used stun batons and sexually abused asylum seekers in an attempt to obtain their fingerprints, according to a new report released on Wednesday by Amnesty International.
Amnesty collected testimonials from two dozen asylum seekers alleging they were subjected to excessive force. The human rights group says these instances of abuse could amount to torture and that the E.U.’s ‘Hotspot’ approach—to swiftly identify, register and fingerprint migrants landing on Europe’s external borders (like Italy)—fueled this “appalling abuse.”
Around 16 testimonials—which include children—involve beatings. A 25-year-old Eritrean, Helen, recalled being slapped on the face, “I don’t remember how many times,” she said, in early May for refusing to provide fingerprints. Adam, 27, from Sudan, told Amnesty of an incident this summer at a police station near the port of Catania after he refused to give his fingerprints. “There were six policemen in uniform,” he said. “With a baton they hit me on the shoulders, on the hip, and on the little finger on the left hand, which since then is twisted. I fell down and they started kicking me, I don’t know how many times, it lasted 10 minutes or so.”
He also alleged that police officers sexually abused him because he continued to resist fingerprinting. While he sat on an aluminum chair “with an opening on the seat,” Adam said he was allegedly told to undress and, “[they] took my testicles with the plier, and pulled twice.”
The second case of alleged sexual abuse recorded by Amnesty was done to a 16-year-old boy, Ishaq, from Sudan. He claims that police officers in a Turin train station took his group into a room and “started laughing” as they made them “undress, all naked.” When he resisted fingerprinting, a police officer pulled his genitals while another took a photo of him. “They held me by my four limbs, one person for each. The fifth pulled my penis down until she got me seated. At that point one took a photo of me, while another one was turning my head towards the camera” he said. “For two days I bled every time I peed.”
A number of other beatings in the report involved stun batons, which disrupts muscle function and causes pain through electric shocks. A 16-year-old, also from Sudan, who spoke to Amnesty said he was detained in a police station in Sicily after landing in the southern Italian island. “After three days… they took me to the ‘electricity room,'” he told Amnesty. “The police then asked me to give fingerprints. I refused. Then they gave me electricity with a stick, many times on the left leg, then on the right leg, chest and belly. I was too weak, I couldn’t resist and at that point they took both my hands and put them on the machine. I couldn’t resist.”
Italy’s Refugee Council, Consiglio Italiano per i Rifugiati, told TIME that they saw four migrants from Sudan who reported abuse in the coastal city of Taranto. “They stated that they were closed in a bus for 3 days and they were released only after being fingerprinted. One of them reported also beating on a leg,” the council said. According to Amnesty, while the vast majority of migrants are happy to provide thumbprints, certain people refuse as they want to seek asylum in another European country.
Countries like Italy and Greece have dealt with the bulk of migrants arriving to the continent. Last year, the ‘hotspot approach’ and an emergency-relocation scheme, where the processing of asylum seekers would be transferred to other European countries, were efforts by Brussels to ease the pressure on such frontline European states. Through Italy’s ‘hotspots,’ migrants are now screened and fingerprinted as soon as they step-off boats from the Mediterranean. Italian authorities then assess their legal status and separate people deemed asylum-seekers from the rest. Those considered ‘irregular migrants’ are usually repatriated.
Amnesty says this screening process is flawed because police officers lack appropriate training, and make decisions based based on answers by migrants who are ill-informed of their rights. “In their determination to reduce the onward movement of refugees and migrants to other member states, E.U. leaders have driven the Italian authorities to the limits–and beyond–of what is legal,” Matteo de Bellis, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Italy, said in a statement. “The result is that traumatized people, arriving in Italy after harrowing journeys, are being subjected to flawed assessments and in some instances appalling abuse at the hands of the police, as well as unlawful expulsions.”
Amnesty conducted interviews with 174 migrants for this report in 2016, Italy’s Interior Ministry has yet to respond to these allegations of abuse to either Amnesty or TIME.