The man charged with driving a boat full of 129 migrants to Europe from Libya had no idea how to sail. Traffickers had shoved him to the front, pointed a gun to his head and gave him a compass, ordering him to head north.
As Mouhamed watched from the back of the boat, he realized that the 2-meter-high waves would soon swallow them all if he didn’t intervene. The 24-year-old from Senegal volunteered to sail the boat, and “thanks to a little luck,” he said, everyone aboard arrived safely in Italy.
Related Campaign: Call to close Libyan slave markets.
Yet while all of the other migrants were taken to a shelter, Mouhamed found himself arrested and thrown in jail, charged with aiding illegal migration.
The Guardian reports:
They call them “scafisti” – boat drivers – and, according to official figures, Italy has arrested more than 1,500 of them since 2013. Hundreds are being held in prison.
Another four people were arrested in Lampedusa on Tuesday. They are accused of illegally sailing migrants’ boats into the country, and risk sentences of up to 15 years in prison. Yet many of them are nothing more than asylum seekers, victims of trafficking like everyone else.
Mouhamed, who is one of them, still bears signs of the torture he suffered in Libya. “What would you have done in my place?” says Mouhamed, who was made to disembark in handcuffs.
In a report published in 2017 by Borderline Sicilia, a non-profit organisation that provides legal assistance to lawyers in court cases related to migration, researchers explained how the criminalisation of boat drivers is filling prisons with innocent people who have been turned into scapegoats.
“Smugglers know that once they arrive here they will now be arrested,” explained Paola Ottaviano, a lawyer for Borderline, “and have found a new way to transfer people: forcing migrants to drive the boat.”
However, in one landmark case, a judge at the court of Palermo, dropped charges against two boat drivers.
“After listening to the witnesses and digging a little deeper, I realised that the accused men were not guilty,” said judge Gigi Omar Modica.
“The traffickers today can count on a free army: the migrants, in fact. They almost always force boat drivers to sail, sometimes threatening them with a gun. They are scared, undernourished like everyone else.”
Still, when a rubber boat carrying migrants arrives in Italy, Italian police must identify a responsible person to justify the illegal entry of passengers, often with the help of a translator.
Yet translators have come forward saying that the police make them translate promises to to convince migrants to testify, and those that do testify against boat drivers have been given a permit to stay.
Mouhamed was lucky to be released from jail after a week, but says he has “heard that men charged for the same crime have been released after two years and ended up homeless in the streets.”
Italian authorities say they have no choice but to apply the illegal immigration law against boat drivers.
“I am bound to apply the law. If the boat driver has taken responsibility for the trip, I, as a prosecutor, am required to investigate him,” said Salvatore Vella, the deputy prosecutor of Agrigento.
“The truth is that in order to capture the real traffickers we need the collaboration of countries in Africa that we do not currently have.”