By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's rising rejection rate for asylum requests clashes with the stories told by migrants who risk their lives to cross the desert and sea to reach Europe, a Rome-based humanitarian group said on Tuesday.
Italy turned down more than 60 percent of asylum requests in the first eight months of this year, Doctors for Human Rights (MEDU) said, up from 58 percent last year and 39 percent in 2014.
In interviews with 1,000 African migrants who reached Italy, MEDU said that only 10 percent of West Africans said they had left home for economic reasons. The rest cited religious or political persecution, family violence, civil war, sexual orientation and other issues as their reason for fleeing.
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No one from East Africa said they left home because of poverty.
"If the migrants are willing to put their lives on the line to make the journey to Europe, it usually means they have no alternative," MEDU coordinator Alberto Barbieri said.
More than 90 percent of those interviewed said they had been the victims of extreme violence - torture or inhumane treatment - either at home or along the migrant route or both, MEDU said in an interactive migration map that incorporates the interviews.
Italy is on the front line of Europe's migrant crisis, now in its third year, taking in more than 400,000 people since the start of 2014. Thousands have died crossing the Mediterranean, including more than 3,000 already this year, and an unknown number have perished in the Sahara Desert.
In Italy, some 40 territorial commissions evaluate asylum requests and interview applicants. Their decisions can be appealed to the court system, but rejections can leave migrants in legal limbo for years.
Often migrants are not in the proper state of mind to tell their stories when they arrive because they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as a result of torture or abuse, said Flavia Calo, a MEDU psychologist and coordinator.
But there is also a suspicion that the national asylum commission, which oversees the territorial bodies, wants to lower asylum protection numbers to limit future arrivals.
"The rising rejection rates can be read as the result of a political objective aimed at discouraging people from coming," Barbieri said.
The national asylum commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mario Morcone, the top official at the Interior Ministry for migration issues, has repeatedly said there should be legal channels for migrants who may not qualify for asylum to come to Europe.
(Editing by Hugh Lawson)