We’re Not Boat Drivers

Vita.it – They worked for days and nights to build Santa’s Grotto. One cut the wood, one painted the sleigh or the tree, one gathered the leaves for the details, one the moss and the stones to make the grotto itself. Between a visit to the lawyer and a phone call to their parents in Senegal or Ghana who, till a short while ago, when they were in prison, thought they were dead. Between one word of hope and another. And before signing at the police station, as they have to every afternoon before returning to prison.

Foto: Alessandro Puglia

The Santa’s Grotto, organised by the multicultural workshop “Terra Viva” at San Giovanni La Punta, in the province of Catania, Sicily (Mount Etna, covered in snow, looms in the background), has not been built by normal carpenters, but by “boat drivers” who, as in this instance like so many, are simpluy migrants like all the others. Perhaps more than the others.

Scafista. Boat driver. What does this word mean? I’m not one, I didn’t even drive the boat. I was beaten for five days in a row in a prison in Tripoli, in the room where they put everyone who hadn’t paid”, Alexandre tells me. Due to his striking physical stature, he’s known as Hulk, but then again he’s got the easy listening radio station on. “When we were in the boat, the Libyans picked me up by my kneck and put a gun to my head. They forced me to drive, while a Gambian boy was given the GPS and a rescue number to call once we got to international waters, simply because he spoke English” continues Abdou, who is under house arrest following two years in prison at Piazza Lanza in Catania. “They took me to prison barefoot and I spent a month in isolation because I had scabies.”

Different boats, but the same stories of threats and every kind of violence. Repeated phrases like “If you try and go back, they kill you”, almost always preceded by tales of torture in the Libyan detention camps. John tells me about being threatened by Libyans with kalashnikovs before leaving Sabrata. “See this?” he says, pointing to his face. “They branded me with a hot iron.”

Isaac – from Ghana, like John – has a similar story to tell. “They beat us. I told them I didn’t want to drive the dinghy, I refused. They told me they would kill me. I was terrorised, I didn’t know the route.” Isaac came into the port of Catania on June 24th, 2016 on the Italian navy vessel the Spica. During the rescue operation, as if often the case, there was commotion on board and a young Nigerian woman died. “The other people on the boat thanked me for saving their lives.”

According to Article 12 of the Italian Immigration Act, the penalty for boat driving ranges from a minimum of 5 years to a maximum of 15, with a fine of between €15,000 and €25,000 for each person brought into Italian territory. In total, the exagerated sum recahed around one million Euros, a sum which the migrants will never be able to pay. “A client of mine was sentenced to two and a half years, with a fine of €924,445”, explains Rosa Emanuela Lo Faro, a lawyer who has defended around 50 boat drivers over her career. “There’s a legislative gap. You can’t generalise like this. A distinction needs to be made between someone who is a criminal, and someone who has been threatened at gunpoint to take the healm. It’s only one in ten who do this as a job.”

The crime of aiding and abbetting illegal entrance is then worsened by aggravating factors: the transport of more than five people; exposing people to life-threatening risk on “a vessel without security measures” – which certainly is not their choice; the use of weapons; economic profit. The “boat drivers” who we spoke to told us that not only were they not armed, but they even paid for the journey – under armed threats, like all the other migrants.

“Article 12 needs to be revised. These are rules that refer to people traffickers, but are then applied to boat drivers. The role has changed over the years and, in these cases, we are asking that in fact they should be considered as victims of human trafficking”, explains Paola Ottaviano and Germana Graceffo, lawyers with the association Borderline Sicilia. According to their own report, they have calculated that two boat drivers are arrested for every hundred migrants.

In order to request exoneration, some lawyers have employed a “state of necessity” argument, as allowed under the penal code, but such cases can be counted on one hand, and frequently lawyers rely instead on plea bargaining in order to win a reduced sentence.

The public prosecutor of Catania gave a statement about the situation earlier this year. During a parliamentary hearing on March 22nd, Carmelo Zuccaro explained that “the people placed at the healm of these vessels are increasingly less than ideal and are no longer part of the trafficking organisation, even at the lowest level. They are usually chosen at the last moment from among the migrants themselves.”

The prosecutor of Catania, however, emphasised that “he has not provided a note claiming that there is not need to proceed with charges against these occasional boat drivers, because they can be cleared through an argument of ‘state of necessity’”, but instead has decided to not continue the detention in such as cases of occasional boat drivers because “they are not part of a wider organised activity dedicated to the trafficking of migrants” and because their behaviour “does not denote the severity and danger on which basis to justify carcereal measures.”

Despite these guidelines from the public prosecutor, the “boat drivers” who have already been sentenced have to return to prison, and John is about to leave Santa’s Grotto. “He had just bought some detergent to wash his clothers, toothpaste and a new toothbrush. My boys are devastated, they were crying. No one here can explain the reason for it. Even the police that came to take him away said that John’s a good man. The state, however, hasn’t done anything”, Giuseppe Messina tells me, the president and founder of the association “Insieme”, that created the “Terra Viva” workshop.

“I will never forget the eyes of a young boy, underage, who was accused of being a boat driver. He was crying and kept saying: I’m small. Later they managed to show that he was a minor and he was let out, but he did a month and a half inside”, Salvo Coco tells me, a prison psycologist at Catania and Giarre. “There aren’t interpreters in prison, not ones able to speak with them. When they want to talk, they cry and beat their dists because no one understands them. And then there are the cases of self harm”, he adds. “We haven’t seen real boat drivers for a long time. These migrants carry wounds on their bodies and sould, ones which are difficult to sew up. Among the forms of torture they undergo, they are frequently beaten with a rifle. In one case we followed, a minor had had six teeth pulled out with pincers”, Giuseppe Cannella adds, a psycologist and psychiatrist with Doctors for Human Rights (MEDU).

At Santa’s Grotto, everything is everything is ready for the inauguration. The carpenters who have built it prefer to stay behind the scenes and eat some panettone. “I’ve been living side by side with these guys. At night I lie awake thinking about the day they will go back to prison, like John. It’s just not possible. People who have done wrong are meant to go to prison, not them” says Giuseppe Messina, who even enlisted the help of the soldiers at the US Army base at Sigonella to help with the Christmas workshop.

Their Santa’s Grotto is open to the public. Giuseppe has just seen John leave, while a small child sits on Father Christmas’s lap, and whispers a wish. He is hoping for a big boat under the Christmas tree, and he wants to be the captain.


Alessando Puglia



Project “OpenEurope” – Oxfam Italia, Diaconia Valdese, Borderline Sicilia Onlus
Translation by Richard Braude