Lamine, 25, was arrested at the end of a landing in Messina in 2021: he is a boy from Gambia accused of having sailed the boat on which about one hundred people were travelling, ten of whom died during the crossing, when the boat she overturned. The castaways were rescued by the humanitarian vessel of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Geo Barents and were taken to safety in Italy, but upon arrival Lamine was arrested on charges of aiding and abetting illegal immigration and multiple homicide. He risks 24 years in prison.
“Lamine is one of the many guys who are in prison with whom we are in contact. He continues to say that he was not driving the vehicle and we are sure that he knew some of the deceased people: the trial against him is underway and he risks a very severe penalty”, says Richard Brodie, a researcher and social worker at Arci Porco Palermo red. According to a report by the association, produced in collaboration with Borderline Europe, in 2022 264 alleged smugglers were arrested following their landing in Italy: one person for every three hundred arrivals.
But according to the activists who are following about ninety of the people who ended up in prison on charges of aiding and abetting illegal immigration, in most cases they have nothing to do with criminal groups, rather they are themselves victims of exploitation.
“From the numerous trials we have followed and from the sentences, it appears that many young people were recruited at the last moment by criminal organizations, often they were forced to drive the vehicle or they organized themselves for the trip, i.e. they drove the boats they bought together with their travel companions. But despite this they are treated in prison as dangerous criminals”, continues the activist, according to whom many of the prisoners convicted of aiding and abetting illegal immigration are in prison for many years in a regime that does not provide for alternative measures. “It’s tough,” Brodie comments.
“The percentage of arrests compared to arrivals is constant compared to 2021 and also to the period 2014-2017. Very different compared to this period, however, are the nationalities of the people arrested”, continues Brodie.
In the years following the reopening of the Libyan route, a quarter of people arrested upon arrival on smuggler charges were from West Africa, while in the past two years only ten people from this area have been arrested on the same charge . Instead, most of the people stopped are from North Africa and Central Asia.
“North Africans are double compared to the previous year: we counted 118 arrests in 2022, compared to 61 in 2021. In the last two years, as in previous years, most of these arrests involve Egyptian citizens. And in fact the number of Egyptians who have decided to face the risks of the Mediterranean this year has more than doubled compared to last year (18,285 compared to 8,576, according to data from the ministry)”, Brodie recounts.
The greater number of Tunisians and Egyptians is linked to the change of routes: in 2022 traffic on the route starting from Tunisia intensified and old routes starting from the eastern part of Libya, from the ports of Tobruk and Derna, reopened.
According to the report, another significant change between 2021 and 2022 was the decrease of Ukrainians stopped by the police. These were usually employed as skipper on journeys between Turkey and Calabria or eastern Sicily, but in the last year, due to the war in Ukraine, it has been impossible for men aged between 18 and 60 to leave the country. In 2022, only nine were arrested after landing.
The importance of the route – which connects the coasts of the Aegean to Italy in a week’s sailing – has however grown and the place of the Ukrainians at the helm of the sailboats has been taken by the Russians and the Turks.
“We have seen a doubling of the detentions of Turkish citizens (24 in 2021, 52 in 2022) and Russians (7 in 2021, 14 in 2022), but also many more detentions of people from the Asian continent in general: from Syrians to Bangladeshis, passing through landlocked countries like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan,” says Brodie.
“As we wrote in the report, in the majority of these trials the accused have little or no connection with violent organizations and groups. More often than not, they are the ones who are exposed to these methods and exploited. It is important to note that these organizations evolve to react and fill the void created by the policies of closure of Europe, and are the product of policies still implemented primarily by the Italian government”, concludes the researcher.