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Migrant Lives

Why The "Captains" Of Migrant Trafficking Boats Are Often The First Victims

Since 2015, Europe's strategy to stop irregular migration has focused on arresting so-called smugglers. But those steering the vessels are usually desperate migrants themselves, forced to take the helm.

Photo of Migrants Rescued in Mediterranean Sea

First approach of the rescue boat of the Spanish vessel ''Aita Mari'' to a precarious metal boat carrying 40 sub-Saharan migrants.

Annalisa Camilli

ROME — For the past two years, Mohammed has been living in Antwerp, Belgium. He works as a dockworker, although he does not have a contract. Originally from Freetown, Sierra Leone, he arrived in Italy from Libya in May 2016 on a fishing boat.

“The sea was bad, and everyone was vomiting,” he recalls.

Then, salvation: the Italian coast guard rescued them and brought them to Sicily. But when they arrived in port, Mohammed discovered Italian authorities were accusing him of a crime: aiding and abetting illegal immigration.

He was the boat’s cabin boy, and migrants on the boat identified him as a smuggler. He was arrested and sent to prison, where he remained for three years as the trial took place.

“I could only call home after a year and a half. That’s when I learned that my father had died. He had been sick, but I hadn’t even known,” Mohammed says. “My family was sure I had died at sea because they had not heard from me.”

He speaks slowly on the phone, struggling to remember. This was the most difficult time of his life.

“I had gone to Libya to work, but the situation in the country was terrible, so I decided to leave. I paid Libyan traffickers,” he recalls.

“While we were in line, they picked me out of the line and told me I had to help the captain,” he recounts. “I had never driven a boat in my life.”

Forced to steer

The interrogation at police headquarters was traumatic: “They got my name wrong, wrote that I spoke French, told me I had committed a crime — but I had paid for the trip.”

Mohammed was eventually acquitted, but a deportation decree hung over him.

“Italy was the country I wanted to stay in because it had saved my life, but I had no papers and I was afraid of having problems with the police again. So I went first to France, then to Belgium, where part of my family is,” he says.

Criminalizing the boat driver means not knowing the migration phenomenon in its complexity.

In April 2022, his court case finally came to an end when the Palermo court of appeal confirmed that Mohammed was coerced by human traffickers to drive the boat, while they stayed ashore in Libya. The testimony of deputy police officer Carmine Mosca was crucial to his acquittal.

"The traffickers have recently learned another method: in essence, they are in charge of setting off the boats, of arranging the trip and of getting the migrants to the Libyan coast. Once they get there, they set them up in hideouts, even for weeks or months, taking advantage of them in all ways, both from a physical and economic point of view," the officer explained during the trial.

“After that, at night, when the sea allows it, they take them to the coast, embark them on boats, that can also be dinghies and train some migrants on the spot to steer the vessel. They take them all the way to the border of international waters, because evidently there is a strong complicity with the Libyan control bodies, and then abandon them to their fate.”

Palermo judges ruled that 14 migrants who were arrested in May 2016 because they were at the helm of the boat when they landed had been forced to steer the boats. All spent at least two years in prison and were not finally acquitted until April 2022.

Harsh penalties

In March, the Italian government approved a new decree to further criminalize the activities of boat smugglers, threatening those who steer a boat of irregular migrants with up to 30 years in prison.

The crackdown is nothing new: since 2015, the European strategy to combat irregular migration has focused on arresting them. Over the past decade, 2500 people have been arrested, often unjustly, for driving a boat, according to the report “From Sea to Jail,” written by Sicilian organization Arci Porco Rosso and the European groups Alarm Phone and Border Europe.

They are recruited at the last moment, either by force or the promise of free travel.

But this strategy has had little effect on international human trafficking, because the people steering the boats are just the last link in a long chain. In recent years, international criminal networks which smuggle migrants have often entrusted the boat to people who are recruited at the last moment, either by force or the promise of free travel, particularly on the route from Libya.

“There is a very high number of people in prison for this crime," explains Tatiana Montella, a lawyer at the Roma Tre University legal clinic. “Those who drive the boats are often not part of the criminal network that organized the trip. Those who drive do not profit; at most, they are migrants who do not pay for the trip. Criminalizing the boat driver means not knowing the migration phenomenon in its complexity.”

The new decree raises the penalties for the crime of aiding and abetting illegal immigration and provides for high penalties in the event of shipwrecks.

“In Cutro, for example, a 17-year-old boy was arrested and charged for having caused the shipwreck. But arresting people like this has no effect on trafficking. Instead, it destroys the lives of these people who have to endure long trials,” Montella concludes.

Photo of Italy Migrant Boat Shipwreck, Funeral For Victims

Mourners near the coffins of victims who died in a migrant shipwreck off the Calabria's coast in southern Italy last month.

ANSA via ZUMA Press

State of need

Bouba Dieye (whose name has been changed to protect his identity) was 20 years old and arrived in Sabrata, Libya from Dakar, Senegal, when Libyans forced him to take the helm of a fiberglass motor boat.

“They escorted us out to sea on jet skis, turned on the engine and forced me to take the helm,” says the young man, who now lives in Palermo and is a welder. “I had never driven a boat, and at first the boat was lurching. I couldn’t steer it. I was scared,” he continues. He says he endured the crossing only because of his faith: “I believe in God. I relied on him; I prayed.”

The hundreds of arrests have failed to weaken the criminal organizations

Italian Coast Guard rescued people on the boat in July 2016. Dieye was arrested after arriving in Palermo harbor. He never denied being the person at the helm of the boat, but said that he was forced to drive it and did not belong to a criminal organization. Prosecutors asked for eight years in prison for Dieye. He was acquitted, but the ruling did not come until late Feb. 2023, seven years he arrived.

The Palermo court accepted Dieye's lawyer's argument that he had acted out of necessity, forced to take the wheel by armed and unscrupulous criminals.

“It’s the same story, repeating itself. They stop three or four people, no more. They ask them two questions: who was driving the boat, and who was using the compass. It ends there. They get names and are not interested in anything else," Sicilian judge Gigi Modica told The Intercept.

Modica was one of the first Italian judges to acquit people accused of maneuvering the barges, agreeing that they had been forced to do so. These rulings based on a “state of necessity” have become more common, but the arrests have not stopped: at least 268 in 2022, according to the “From Sea to Jail” report.

Turkish route

In Turkey, human trafficking is run by an international criminal network made up of Ukrainians and Turks. Lured into this network, often also by deception, are sailors from former Soviet Union countries who are put at the helm of sailboats, which are safer than dinghies and less conspicuous than fishing boats, and more likely to arrive at their destination without trouble.

Vasilij (whose name has been changed to protect his identity) is 49 and originally from Dnipro, Ukraine. He thought he would make a living as a skipper in the Mediterranean, taking tourists on cruises.

“I left Ukraine in 2014 because I had received two government summonses to go to the front and fight against pro-Russian separatists. I didn’t want to die in the war — I was a photographer and skipper in Crimea at the time, so with a friend who had a sailboat we left Sevastopol, headed for Turkey. We were looking for work, and we were contacted by three Ukrainians who together with two Turks told us they had jobs for us: small boat tours in the Mediterranean for tourists.”

Only when he arrived in Turkey did Vasilij find out that his job was to transport undocumented migrants to Italy. In 2016, he left Çeşme, Turkey. When he arrived in Italy, he was arrested for aiding and abetting the illegal immigration of 24 Syrian and Afghan migrants and was sentenced to two years and four months in prison.

Vasilij is one of hundreds of smugglers arrested in Turkey, Greece and Italy over recent years — but the hundreds of arrests have failed to weaken the criminal organizations that really run the human trafficking business.

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