bbc.com – In our series of letters from African journalists, Ismail Einashe meets a young Senegalese man who was accused of people smuggling soon after he survived crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
The 16-year-old from Senegal was relieved to have landed safely in Sicily – staying in what he thought was a migrant reception centre. This was in 2015, after he had survived a perilous boat journey from Libya. But two days into his stay he became concerned that the doors to his room were locked shut.
Unwittingly, in fact, Moussa – whose name has been changed to protect his identity – found himself in prison in Trapani, a port city in the west of the Italian island. “This can’t be, I got to Italy and ended up straight in prison. I am 16,” he thought to himself. He could not believe what had happened to him – this was not the Europe he had dreamt about before he embarked on the arduous journey from Senegal in search of a better life.
Moussa would go on to spend almost two years in an adult prison on charges of people smuggling even though he was a minor. His case is far from unique.
In the last decade more than 2,500 people have been arrested in Italy on the same charges, according to a recent report by Palermo-based non-governmental organisation Arci Porco Rosso.
Those arrested in Italy are accused of aiding and abetting illegal migration, a crime that can result in up to 20 years imprisonment and huge fines.
‘Used as scapegoats’
Hundreds of innocent migrants are currently locked up waiting for the legal process to be concluded, according to Maria Giulia Fava, a paralegal who co-authored the report.
She says that Italy is using people-smuggling laws to criminalise migrants and refugees in an attempt to scapegoat them over immigration levels.
Migrants are charged on extremely weak evidence, she adds, court hearings are rarely open, there is a lack of adequate access to legal defence, evidence can be based on unreliable witnesses and minors can end up in the adult prison system.
Cheikh Sene knows the system well.
He is now a Senegalese community organiser in Sicily’s main city, Palermo, but spent two years in prison after being found guilty of aiding people smuggling and says that many migrants are unjustly kept in prison simply for saving lives at sea. He says that is what happened to him.
Arci Porco Rosso also states in its report that it came across cases in which Italian police officers offered migrants documents in exchange for their testimony against alleged boat drivers.
The Italian Ministry of Justice told the BBC that it could not provide information on trials or arrests, but it did provide data on those currently held in prisons on people-smuggling charges. As of 22 March, it said, there were 952 inmates, of which 562 were convicted in Italy for people smuggling
However, the ministry did not respond to the allegations made in the Arci Porco Rosso report.
‘Minors in adults prisons’
In Moussa’s case when his boat landed in Trapani, he was left to disembark and waited with others who arrived at the port for a bus to take them into town. But as he stood there he was called over by an Italian official.
“They asked me to follow them inside. They gave me a paper, and took a picture. Then they made me get in a big car and drove me away. The trip lasted more than two hours, and then they took me to an office.”
It turned out to be a police station where he was interviewed through a French-speaking Moroccan translator. She explained to him that two fellow passengers on the boat had accused him of having steered the vessel. He pleaded to know who these two people were, as he could not understand the allegation, but she told him she was a translator and not a lawyer.
The next morning he was put in a police car.”I didn’t know I was being taken to prison. I thought it was a reception centre.”
He tried to explain that he was a minor. In the prison, he says he had two scans to determine his age. One assessment found that he was a minor, while the other did not. Because the results were inconclusive he was placed in an adult prison. And he says he was not alone in this. He remembers other young African migrants his age and younger in prison with him.
He recalls meeting plenty of Gambians, Tunisians, Nigerians and Malians.
Missed father’s death
It was nine months before he was able to call his family in Senegal who had presumed he was dead. A few months later, on a second call, he found out that his father had passed away.
In prison he was at least able to study for his Italian middle school qualifications and dreamt of escaping prison. Finally, in spring 2017, Moussa got an appeal court hearing date in Palermo. But when he walked into the courtroom the judge stood up and said he could not preside over the case of a minor. Then, three days later, in the small hours of the morning, guards came to his cell and told him to pack up as he was being released.
“They walked me to the door and closed it behind me. I was standing there, with a plastic bin bag full of my clothes.” He had no idea where to go and one of the guards suggested he take the road and wait until he found other Africans to ask for advice on what he should do.
That night he arrived at the Piazza Vittoria square in Trapani. There he met some Senegalese who told him to head to Volpita, a migrant camp. Eventually Moussa left Volpita after hearing he could make money by picking olives somewhere else.
After spending many months working there he settled in the popular tourist town of Cefalù, near Palermo, where he now works as a chef in a hotel. But his case has not been addressed yet and he remains in a distressing legal limbo. His documents have also expired and he is waiting for a new court date.
As Moussa explains his predicament six years after arriving in Italy he becomes overwhelmed – traumatised by what he had been through. He simply wants the nightmare to end.