Between A War and the Oscars

Third Quarterly Report 2023, ‘From Sea to Prison’ project.

“Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.” – MLK

In her speech to the UN General Assembly in New York last month, the Italian president Giorgia Meloni declared “a merciless global war on people smugglers”. Her words represent new extremes in the hate speech employed against people who facilitate border crossings. Indeed, the Italian government, reacting to the increase in the number of people arriving by sea from Tunisia, has decided to reprise its crusade against ‘criminality’. Considering this, it is not insignificant that, at the very same time, hundreds of thousands of people have gone to see the film Io Capitano in Italian cinemas: the story of a Senegalese teenager who undertakes the deathly journey to Libya and eventually – and heroically – captains a fishing vessel to Italy, steering himself and hundreds more to safety.

Never before has the figure of the migrant boat driver been so controversial in Italian public debate as in recent months, simultaneously an enemy to be destroyed in a global war, and a hero whose courage and resilience is admired on the big screen, even up for an Oscar.

The ‘War’ Underway

The border crisis has given rise to a new round of talks, a new round of international policies aimed at criminalization. The deals that are consistently and periodically renewed between EUropean powers and successive Libyan governments have tried to stop sea journeys from Libya, including through an increase in deportations to people’s countries of origin from Libya itself. But people always find a way to move – meaning that with the clamp down on the Libyan route, people have gone to Tunisia in order to try and find a way into Fortress Europe. And Europe has thus also turned its gaze towards Saied’s Tunisia. The coordinates change, but the axes are always the same: guns, the scramble for energy resources, and border control. Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of the EU and the IMF, attempts to cut a deal with Tunisia have, for the time being, proved to be a failure.

In the meantime, in order to ensure support on the international stage for its ideologically racist policies, the Italian government has dusted off the old rhetoric about fighting smuggling rings and Mafia networks, whether in meetings with Rishi Sunak or Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In so doing, there has been a certain semantic shift: the Italian authorities speak more readily now about “people smugglers” (trafficanti) rather than “boat drivers” (scafisti) – a linguistic choice with a more authoritative, less journalistic, and perhaps less controversial framing for Italy’s continuing policies criminalizing people on the move.*

This kind of linguistic tendency was particularly noticeable during the international conference held in Palermo to celebrate 20 years since the ratification of the Palermo Conference of 2000 – which includes the UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants, a fundamental moment in the legislative apparatus that criminalizes border crossing. And by bringing Ursula von der Leyen to Lampedusa, Meloni managed to turn the European Commission into her own mouthpiece, improvising a plan for ‘fighting people smugglers’ as a pseudo-response to the overcrowding and human rights violations on the island has seen over recent months – a situation that has nothing to do with ‘smugglers’ and everything to do with Italy’s mismanagement of migrant social support systems.

The most concrete outcome of the Palermo conference at the end of September was the sealing of an agreement with Libya (based on a similar deal with Morocco a few months back) for deporting Libyan citizens from Italian prisons. This is in line with the far-right’s proposal for emptying out Italy’s penitentiary system of foreign prisoners, within the remit of the ‘Mattei Plan for Africa’. According to the Libyan news, the agreement includes repatriating the Libyan footballers, arrested after a maritime disaster in August 2015, and unjustly convicted to between 20 and 30 years.

What consequences will these political maneuvers have on the lives of the people who are directly impacted? We find it difficult to believe that, for Italy at least, the primary objective of these agreements is to ease the burden posed by having to sit through large prison sentences by moving people nearer to their families, even while we sincerely hope that this might be a collateral effect. In any case, even if this development were to have a positive effect for the people directly involved, it would never be enough to redeem the damage caused by years of unjust detention.

All of this has taken place ten years on from the shipwreck of 3 October 2013, a moment that marked a new chapter for Italy, including through an acceleration in the processes of criminalization. Can we say that the situation has changed at all today? In some ways, perhaps it has. On the Island of Lampedusa, the systematic arrest of boat drivers doesn’t seem to be a priority for prosecutors and police (as we noted in our last quarterly report). However, due to the significant increase in the number of people arriving, it seems that policing activities have taken the place of these arrests.This can be seen in the widespread use of mass detention and the systematic, dehumanizing treatment of people as if they were commodities, amid attempts by the authorities to crank up the machine of administrative detention and forced deportation. This has been possible in part because the majority of people arriving in Lampedusa and Sicily come from countries officially designated as “safe”, and are thus easily subjected to new forms of administrative detention.

People arriving in Calabria, on the other hand, generally come from countries that are still officially labeled by Italy as “unsafe” – e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. Because it is still difficult to justify the mass detention of people from these countries without claiming a crime has been committed, we find less change in the dynamics of systematic criminalization, arrests and imprisonment that we have described in our previous reports, as was spectacularly the case after the shipwreck at Cutro.

On the Captains' Side

While the world of government politics seems determined to wage a dehumanizing war against the captains – and against people on the move more generally – many other people are fighting to construct a different narrative.

There are those who have taken to the streets to denounce the government’s deadly and carceral politics, while others have used the movie theater to tell the story of those who carry themselves and others to safety across the Mediterranean borders. The new film Io Capitano tries to represent the violence created by the many borders that block the journeys of people on the move. A particularly striking scene in the movie is when Seydou, a 16-year-old Senegalese teenager, stands triumphant on the mast of the ship. He is happy because he made it, because he drove the boat, despite having neither experience at sea, nor any assistance; because thanks to a mix of luck and cool-headedness, nobody  died.

In truth, the story of Fofana Amara, the Senegalese teenager who inspired the film,  did not end in that moment of glory, it continued in prison. The fact that he was only 16 years old didn’t spare him from being subjected to Italy’s systematic criminalization – due to the simple fact that no one bothered to check his age. Only after spending two months in an adult prison was he finally recognized as a minor and his proceedings transferred to the juvenile justice system.

We couldn’t help but note the similarities with the story of ‘H’, a young man from Senegal who we have known for several years. ‘H’ arrived in Italy in 2016 when he was still a minor; he was immediately accused and arrested for being the boat driver. Like Fofana, he was taken to an adult prison, but here their stories diverge because – despite his repeated insistence – no one believed ‘H’ when he said he was a minor. He was sentenced in the first trial by the Court of Trapani, but the sentence was annulled on appeal to make an age assessment, which was concluded in 2022. Based on highly questionable assessments, the Juvenile Court of Palermo concluded definitively that H. was legally an adult in 2016. This year, his court proceedings thus began  all over again in the Court of Trapani.

Trial monitoring in cases such as H.’s is at the core of our activities to support criminalized people and to critically report on the unjust and damaging practices and violations implemented during these criminal proceedings. Last week in Crotone the first hearing took place in the trial against three of the people held responsible for the massacre atCutro in February; September saw the beginning of the trial against the three Palestinians from Gaza, who have been on hunger strike for months in protest against their unjust arrest for facilitating the irregular entry of 70 people, even though, like the others, they had also come to Italy to seek asylum. We have been in touch with their relatives in Gaza, who increasingly face obstacles in supporting them, not least because of the bombings currently being carried out by the Israeli army.


The Struggle Continues

We take hope in the fact that, thanks to an ever-growing solidarity network, the distance between us and people in prison continues to shrink. In Italy,  any visits with “third parties” (such as ourselves) are subject to the discretionality of judges and prison directors. Consequently, many foreign nationals who do not have family or partners in Italy are forced into an even more extreme isolation. This is why  obtaining our first authorizations for phone calls,video calls, and prison visits, represents an important development –  for example with ‘Lamin’, a Gambian citizen arrested in 2021 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

We also had a small but significant victory in accessing non-custodial alternatives to prison. Bilal, a Tunisian captain with whom we have been in touch for two years, is now on parole. This represents an important case of successfully overcoming the legal obstacles to accessing parole or any other alternative measure established by Article 4-bis of the Italian penitentiary system. These obstacles are applied to anyone sentenced for facilitating irregular immigration, a fact that we have repeatedly criticized as both cruel and pointless.

We have also forged links with Un Nuovo Giorno, a volunteer-run residential and cultural center in Palermo which now hosts a Tunisian captain under house arrest. It’s important to note that this practice is very rarely carried out because of the uncertainty tied to the duration of custody and, consequently, the practical challenges related to economic support. We also met ‘D’. here, a Palestinian man sentenced  for being the captain of a boat and separated from his young family – with whom he’d traveled to Italy – and who now lives abroad.

There are many ways in which activists and civil society are resisting the “war” being waged on captains, whether through  obtaining freedom for the detained, as described above, or through resistance in the streets. The many events in which we have participated – such as the Captain Support Network meeting and the Iuventa campaign’s initiative in Palermo at the beginning of September – give us hope and energy in going forward. Last but not least, alongside hundreds of local groups, organizations and individuals, we took to the streets to protest against the Palermo conference at the end of September, raising our voices for a grassroots movement against the Mafia, and for a Mediterranean without borders.

From Sea to Prison, 18 October 2023.

We thank Sea Watch Legal Aid fund, Iuventa Crew and the Safe Passage Foundation for their important support over the last months.

* In Italian, trafficanti refers to ‘people smugglers’ (whereas tratta is the Italian term for ‘human trafficking’). Scafisti is a journalistic term which literally means ‘boat drivers’ but has come to be a applied – with purposeful ambiguity – to smugglers, traffickers and anyone involved in border crossing.