Campaigners filed a complaint with the UN on Wednesday against Italy over a teenage migrant who was sent back to Libya in 2018 along with other migrants, where he was shot, beaten and subjected to forced labour.
The Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) lodged the case with the UN Human Rights Committee aiming to challenge the practice of EU coastal states like Italy engaging commercial ships to return vulnerable people to unsafe locations.
The NGO says it is the first case of its kind to target so-called privatised push-backs.
The complaint maintains that Italy and other states have turned private merchant vessels into instruments of so-called refoulement -- returning asylum seekers to places where they risk persecution and torture -- which is illegal under international law.
"What we are witnessing is a worrying trend where the rescue of desperate people at sea is being out-sourced to ill-equipped and untrained merchant ships," GLAN chief Gearoid O Cuinn said in a statement, warning that "this is a recipe for certain abuse."
- 'Nightmare environment' -
The case was filed on behalf of a South-Sudanese migrant who now lives in Malta.
He was rescued in the Mediterranean with dozens of other migrants on November 7, 2018, but was returned to Libya, where he was subjected to horrific treatment.
The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre oversaw the rescue, carried out by Panama-flagged merchant vessel Nivin, but then asked the ship to coordinate with the Libyan Coast Guard (LYCG).
The LYCG told the Nivin to bring the migrants back to Libya, where the roughly 80 passengers were violently removed from the vessel by Libya security forces, who used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition after a 10-day standoff.
The claimant, who was 19 years old at the time, was shot in the leg, arbitrarily detained, interrogated, beaten, subjected to forced labour and denied medical treatment for months, according to the complaint.
The accusation relied on evidence in a report published on Wednesday by Forensic Oceanography, a research team based at the University of London.
That report found that privatised push-backs have risen sharply since June 2018, and that seafarers are increasingly being "used by states seeking to circumvent their obligations towards refugees", according to the statement.
"Our legal complaint is targeting Italy's attempt to abdicate its responsibilities by privatising the push-back of migrants to a nightmare environment in Libya," O Cuinn said.
- Wracked by conflict -
Italy renewed a widely criticised 2017 agreement in October with the Libyan coastguard to block migrants trying to leave for Europe.
Rights groups say Libya routinely picks up migrants in the Mediterranean and brings them back to overcrowded detention centres, where many have been victims of abuse and forced labour.
Libya, wracked by conflict since the 2011 uprising against Moamer Kadhafi, has become a major transit route for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere hoping to reach Europe.
Some 40,000 refugees and asylum seekers also live outside detention centres in urban areas in Libya, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
The UN Human Rights Committee is made up of 18 independent experts who issue opinions and recommendations that carry reputational weight, but they have no power to compel states to follow their rulings.
Rights groups say Libya routinely picks up migrants in the Mediterranean and brings them back to overcrowded detention centres