Mi­grants forced to help, face ar­rest

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

All mi­grant Marc Samie has of his fi­ancee is a pic­ture in his mind. Louise, seven and a half months preg­nant, is stand­ing silently on a beach in Libya, tears rolling down her face as traf­fick­ers force him at gun­point into a rub­ber dinghy with a com­pass. The armed men had or­dered Samie to hold the com­pass and a satel­lite phone for nav­i­ga­tion on the jour­ney to Italy. He re­fused. So they fired a Kalash­nikov at the ground be­tween his legs, and told him to take the com­pass or they would kill the cou­ple. They said she would be on the next boat.

That was last July, and he hasn’t laid eyes on her since. But in­stead of be­ing treated as a vic­tim in Italy, Samie was ar­rested by po­lice and charged with fa­cil­i­tat­ing il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. Samie, a 21-year-old from Togo, is one of hun­dreds of mi­grants who are caught up in the Ital­ian le­gal sys­tem as po­lice, pros­e­cu­tors and judges strug­gle to com­bat hu­man traf­fick­ing. They are the vic­tims of a new tac­tic where pro­fes­sional smug­glers avoid be­ing caught by forc­ing mi­grants, many of them mi­nors, to take the helm of the boats.

Al­most ev­ery day, Ital­ian of­fi­cials de­tain men ac­cused of driv­ing the boats, but don’t know if they are traf­fick­ers or mi­grants. While over­all num­bers are not avail­able, 179 smug­glers - 26 of them mi­nors - were de­tained this year at the port of Poz­za­llo alone, where Samie came in. That com­pares to 147 last year. In an­other port, Au­gusta, more than 190 smug­glers have been ar­rested so far this year, ac­cord­ing to po­lice. And in Cata­nia district, traf­fick­ing ar­rests have risen dra­mat­i­cally from 13 in 2013 to 79 as of Au­gust.

Po­lice are well aware that they aren’t reach­ing the crim­i­nals who are be­hind the traf­fick­ing and reap­ing the prof­its. To date, Ital­ian po­lice haven’t ob­tained the ar­rest of a mi­grant traf­ficker in Libya, said An­drea Bonomo, deputy pros­e­cu­tor for Cata­nia. “(We are) mak­ing the ar­rests at what I would de­fine as the low­est level, the so­called smug­glers, the ones who drive the boats and who are of­ten mi­grants,” he said. “They risk their lives to­gether with the oth­ers.”

There are no num­bers on con­vic­tions. But smug­glers can get five to 15 years in prison, Bonomo added. In early Novem­ber, po­lice stood in the port of Au­gusta watch­ing hun­dreds of mi­grants dis­em­bark from a navy res­cue ship. In­ter­preters in­ter­viewed them to try to fig­ure out who was driv­ing the boats and hold­ing the compasses. Traf­fick­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions in Libya now make cheap dinghies that can only last for eight to nine hours in the water be­fore they sink, Mar­shal To­nio Pan­za­naro said. The traf­fick­ers then take what he calls “last-minute” smug­glers, mi­grants who are some­times given a free ride, and make them drive the boat. Be­hind it all is a “huge move­ment of money”, he noted, with pro­fes­sional traf­fick­ers earn­ing ‚€100,000 ($105,000) from a dinghy that costs just ‚€2,000 ($2,100).

Smug­glers or sur­vivors?

“Our prob­lem is that we know how they are op­er­at­ing in Libya, but since there is no gov­ern­ment we can’t take the fi­nal step, that of ar­rest­ing the or­ga­niz­ers,” he said. Not all boat driv­ers and nav­i­ga­tors are treated as smug­glers. On Sept 7, Gigi Mod­ica, a judge in Palermo threw out the case against two ac­cused smug­glers, a So­mali and a Gam­bian. The men were driv­ing and hold­ing the com­pass on a rub­ber dinghy with 118 mi­grants on board. A dozen pas­sen­gers died, and the men were ac­cused of mul­ti­ple man­slaugh­ter.

Mod­ica con­cluded that the two pre­sumed smug­glers were ac­tu­ally mi­grants forced by armed Libyans to drive the boat. Nei­ther seemed to have any ex­pe­ri­ence, they spoke dif­fer­ent lan­guages and they couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate with one an­other. In his state­ment, he wrote that they had been threat­ened with death, and he or­dered them to be freed im­me­di­ately. Mod­ica said Libyan traf­fick­ers are choos­ing sub-Sa­ha­ran Africans to drive the boats and take the compasses. He said de­fen­dants had told of friends be­ing killed by traf­fick­ers be­cause they re­fused to lead the boats. He added that it is clear when those di­rect­ing the boat aren’t the real smug­glers. “They are weak. They are frag­ile. They are scared. They can only talk with lots of dif­fi­culty,” he said. “It’s ev­i­dent that they aren’t part of the prob­lem. They are a vic­tim of the prob­lem.” In the small Si­cil­ian town of Pachino, eight young African men live in a home run by an or­ga­ni­za­tion called Open Europe. Like Samie, many of them were ac­cused of ei­ther driv­ing the boat or hold­ing the com­pass. Sev­eral re­ceived ex­pul­sion or­ders.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion al­lowed AP to talk to a Gam­bian who says he is 15 years old, on con­di­tion that his name not be used be­cause he is a mi­nor. He was on the beach in Libya wait­ing to climb into a dinghy when armed men told him he had to hold the com­pass. He replied that he didn’t even know how to use a com­pass. They threat­ened to kill him, and beat him with a pipe. He slides up the sleeve of his green sweat suit to re­veal a 6-cm scar. — AP

In this photo taken on Nov 11, 2016, Dam­pha (left) and Marc Samie, who were forced to hold the com­pass and then ac­cused of be­ing smug­glers af­ter ar­riv­ing to Italy, write in Ital­ian on a black­board in the kitchen of their home in Pachino, Si­cily. — AP

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