Article first published on June 17, 2022
Project “From Sea to Prison”: Second quarterly report, June 2022
The project ‘From Sea to Prison’ – initiated by Arci Porco Rosso alongside borderline-europe and Borderline Sicilia – focuses on building methods and networks that show solidarity with people on the move accused of being boat drivers. The project follows the publication of the report of the same name in October 2021. In the following article we provide an update about how our intervention is going, sharing news about the criminalization of people on the move as well as sharing ideas around solidarity and activism. You can read the first quarterly report here. We are proud to have the support of the Iuventa crew, the Sea Watch Legal Aid fund and the Carol Rackete fund.
The period March-May 2022 has been marked by the unexpected development of a crisis that has shaken the world: the Russo-Ukrainian war. The war has turned the geopolitical situation in Europe upside down, and has had an enormous effect on the policies Europe has established in relation to facilitating border crossing. Quite rightly, those who have facilitated people fleeing the war to enter Italy have been praised and supported. But the recognition of their acts sheds light on the terrible hypocrisy of those authorities who instead punish people who facilitate the entrance of people escaping to Europe from Africa and Asia. And meanwhile, Ukrainian boat drivers continue to be criminalized when they bring into port people arriving from other countries, e.g. Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Every month we read news articles about Ukrainian citizens who have been arrested and accused of facilitating illegal entrance, as Valeria Colombo has described in the Italian magazine Left, which we have translated into English.
A better world, one in which people who facilitated border crossings aren’t imprisoned as smugglers and traffickers, is possible – but it needs the political will. What this crisis has shown is that the idea of ‘illegal immigration’ is fleeting and arbitrary, and can be rubbed out in a second when it’s considered appropriate. The support and solidarity shown to people fleeing Ukraine should be demonstrated to everyone, whatever their country of origin or the color of their skin. A rising tide lifts all boats.
While this new military and political crisis has begun, the pandemic crisis has receded (at least for now) with various consequences for people accused of boat driving. On a positive note, we have witnessed a gradual opening-up of prisons to volunteers and relatives, rendering possible some limited forms of proximity between prisoners and civil society. Furthermore, the Italian government has decided to finally end the illegitimate use of ‘quarantine ships’, a form of administrative detention which has been used and abused since the beginning of the pandemic. The consequences of this change for the criminalization of boat drivers are unpredictable: we will continue to monitor practices followed at boat landings to understand if there will simply be a return to the previous methods of investigation and making arrests, or whether some of the elements introduced over the past two years will be consolidated.
The central activity of our work is socio-legal support for people accused of being boat drivers. Over the recent period, we have followed the situation of a range of captains held in Italian deportation camps (CPR), sites of administrative detention for foreign citizens marked for forced deportation from Italy. The frequency with which people accused of article 12 of the Immigration Act are detained in these centers – even months after their release from prison, and irrespective of whether they were found guilty or not – represents a further indicator of the consequences of criminalization on their lives. We followed the case of a Libyan man who was absolved of all charges three years ago but was recently detained for two months in a deportation camp in Sicily, due to apparently being a “danger to society” – an attribution that hasn’t been connected to any action or document. The case should raise concerns for any citizen: what kind of democracy are we living in, when even someone who is legally present in Europe can be detained because they were previously accused and imprisoned unjustly, and found innocent in a court of law?
Similarly, we followed the nightmarish situation of a captain from Biafra, who after 5 years in prison and 9 months in a deportation camp, has been forcibly deported to Nigeria. Due to his sentencing for Article 12, he effectively couldn’t properly access the asylum procedure, despite being a political dissident in a country that persecutes the struggle for independence supported by his political organization.
On the other hand, we have also had the great pleasure of supporting people following their release from prison, including B., a Gambian citizen held in a prison in Calabria since 2015, with whom activists from Porco Rosso have maintained a letter exchange since 2017. Finally welcoming him to Palermo, after his long journey between injustice and resilience, was a beautiful moment. We would like to thank his lawyers in Calabria, Arci Cosenza, the Combonian Lay Mission and the University of Palermo’s Legal Clinic for the fundamental role that each played in allowing him to finally arrive in Sicily, and for their continued support.
Attending court trials has also been important for our support work over recent months. We were able to attend a hearing of a trial against a Tunisian citizen in Agrigento that has only just begun, and also the final hearing against 17 people at the Palermo Court, a case that activists from our association have followed since the start. We have written an article about the important victory that followed. After a very lengthy juridical journey – 6 years of waiting, 2 years of which most of the suspects passed in prison – the appeal court finally confirmed the verdict of ‘not guilty’ issued in the first trial.
Finally, we have also been supporting a lawyer in making a request for house arrest for two Tunisian captains; we hope that this will represent the first among many such attempts to help captains access measures of detention that differ from prison.
We continued monitoring local news articles, which allow us to form some important data that can be compared with the few official figures that have been made available. In their annual data published in April, the journal Polizia Moderna claimed that over the course of 2021, “in the hours immediately following boat landings, 225 were arrested, including boat drivers, organizers and fixers, and 751 vessels were seized”. Given that 67,500 people were recorded as arriving in 2021, these numbers demonstrate that 0.33% of people arriving by sea are arrested, i.e. one persone in every 300 – showing a general reduction in the number of arrests, in line with our analysis of the figures relating to 2020.
Through our analysis of local news stories, we have counted 145 people who have been arrested over 2021 under accusation of breaching article 12 of the Immigration Act (in connection with sea crossings). We also know the nationality of 131 of these arrestees: 37 were Ukrainian, 34 Egyptian, 21 Turkish, 8 Tunisian, 7 Russian and 7 Moldovan. The remaining nationalities represented are Gambian, German, Greek, Kazak, Kyrgyz, Libian, Pakistani, Palestinian, Sudanese, Syrian and Turkmeni. While bearing in mind the imprecise nature of this data, we can nevertheless estimate that nearly a third of arrests relate to Russian and Ukrainian citizens – a figure that relates to a pattern of criminalization that predates the beginning of the war – while another quarter of arrestees were from Egypt.
In the report we published in October 2021, we managed to provide some provisional figures about arrests of boat drivers over the last decade. In the last 6 months, we made a series of Freedom of Information requests to try and obtain more accurate data on criminalization. However, because the different Sicilian courts have responded to our requests in a range of ways, the data which we have so far is too fragmentary to provide an effective analysis. We nevertheless think it is significant to highlight, as an example, that over the first three months of 2022, the public prosecutor for Agrigento opened investigations against 33 people in relation to facilitating illegal entrance, which can be compared with 26 people investigated for the same crime over all of 2021. The figure confirms for us that criminalization is certainly continuing in a significant manner.
Building a network
A fundamental aspect of our work involves meeting other activists and professionals to build a network that can actively respond, both politically and pragmatically, to the criminalization of boat drivers: only a movement that intervenes at every level can change society as a whole! Over recent months, we have been very lucky to have begun a dialogue with activists and volunteers who have been engaged for years in the defense of prisoners’ rights. We have got to know volunteers ranging from the Catholic world, who have embraced and understood our work, through to abolitionist activists. We have also had the opportunity to get to know some of them better at the event La prigione e la piazza organized by Napoli Monitor (who also interviewed us), an event that brought together people from across Italy to criticize the violence and abuse of power witness over the last two years of the pandemic, both in prisons and in detention centers, as well as a moment to publicize books and texts that can contribute to a new and radical discussion around these issues.
In terms of the antiracist and No Borders movement, we were present in Malta for the series of meetings in support of the El Hiblu 3 campaign, in defense of three West African teenagers who have been criminalized for saving their own lives, and the lives of the other people they had left Libya with. We are proud to have brought a video message from one of the protagonists of the Vos Thalassa case, who communicated his solidarity with all people on the move criminalized by Malta. Finally, in May were also attended the Sabir festival in Matera, organized by Arci Nazionale; we contributed to panel discussions on the criminalization of migrants, captains and NGOs, alongside comrades from Alarm phone, Migreurop, Resq, Baobab, Sea Watch and many other organizations.
We have begun to make contact with activist networks in France, who interviewed us for the magazine Politis, and in Germany, where we participated in a broadcast for Deutschlandfunk.
We would also like to thank the radical brass band Ottoni a Scioppio, for inviting us to the conference they organized in Milan to celebrate the exoneration of two of their musicians who had been through their own process of criminalization. It was a beautiful moment for meeting similar groups and establishing new conversations with activists in Northern Italy.
Finally, we express our solidarity with the crews of the Iuventa, MSF and Save the Children, who were present in Trapani at the end of May for the first hearing in the criminal trial against them, yet again accused of facilitating illegal immigration. We stand with you!
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