First Quarterly Report: From Sea to Prison - Beyond the Research

From Sea to Prison: Beyond the Research - First Quarterly Report by Arci Porco Rosso 

After a year of work, we published the report "From Sea to Prison: The Criminalization of Boat Drivers in Italy". The research was carried out by activists from our network alongside the Italian group Borderline Sicilia and the German-based NGO borderline-europe, and with the support of the transnational network Alarm Phone. Following the initial results, we set up a working group to continue the research as well as expanding our vision beyond this. After a year of research - in which we conducted interviews with a whole range of people directly affected by Italy’s practices of criminalization - we realized that we need to find ways to give back to the people who made the research possible, and to resist those ‘extractivist’ dynamics that often all too often formed between researchers and the communities that under focus. That’s why, in our new project, we’ve decided to focus primarily on supporting criminalized individuals: continuing our research but putting it on a second level. We are drawing on the approach we have collectively developed over the years at our ‘Sans-Papiers’ drop-in space, a method based on active listening, providing socio-legal support for affected persons and building networks of mutual support. We believe it’s vitally important to give people who have been criminalized the chance to become the protagonists of a solidarity movement.

For these reasons, we have renewed our collaboration with borderline-europe and Borderline Sicilia and launched a new project, ‘From Sea to Prison’. We are grateful that some of the sea rescue organizations - our comrades in the struggle for freedom of movement - are supporting our work with generous donations. Thanks to the support of the Iuventa crew, the Carole Rackete fund and the Sea Watch Legal Aid Fund, our group can continue its work in an unprecedented manner. In the upcoming months, we will give updates on the progress of our work. Not only to present our results and to thank everyone for the support and solidarity we are receiving, but also to share our approach and interventions with our networks, in the hope that the best of the ideas might become common practice. Our interventions are based on three guiding actions: socio-legal support, research and fostering support networks.  

Socio-legal support

The people we are supporting have only two things in common: they all arrived in Italy by sea and they have all been charged with aiding and abetting unauthorized immigration. Some were convicted years ago, others have just arrived and are still under investigation. This legal situation aside, we recognize that we are working with people from very different backgrounds and life situations: from university graduates to people with no formal education, from farmers to soccer players and teachers, from older persons to young adults. We are currently closely following the cases of around fifty people, most of whom we are in direct contact with. Half are from West Africa, a large number from North Africa, others from Chad and Afghanistan. Half of them are detained in prison, while some are held in detention centers. We are in touch with detainees through letters that we write along with other activists in our network. Letter by letter, we have been building a relationship with criminalized persons, sharing the joys and challenges of their lives both in and out of prison. We try to involve people in our group who have an interest in, or experience of, incarceration and criminalization, and support them in writing if necessary.

We have also established contacts with lawyers who are following a range of cases, including some of people who have just arrived in Italy, as well as people dealing with definitive sentencing. In some cases the lawyers are weighing up the possibility of re-opening the trials. In other cases, collaborations with lawyers are essential to offer people access to non-custodial measures (e.g. for some we are trying to arrange house arrest) or to support them through their prison release. In terms of these cases, we are providing detainees with important information about the asylum system, and supporting them in navigating this delicate phase in order to prevent their transfer from prison directly to a detention center. Another part of our work involves attending hearings and trial dates. We have already been able to follow the progress of a few cases, and on occasion also provide additional support to the lawyers’ important work. This relates to locating new evidence and accessing material useful for the defense of the criminalized person, as well as grassroots reporting of the proceedings. For example, we attended the trial dates of Ahmed, a young man from Chad who was sentenced a month ago to almost seven years in prison. The case reveals the level of decay in the Italian judiciary when it comes to dealing with the deaths at the country's borders. According to this distorted logic, a young man who himself fled is held to be the sole responsible for the deaths of the people who were traveling with him. At the same time, the responsibility of European decision-makers who are actually responsible for these deaths is not even investigated. We have published a more detailed reflection on this in collaboration with Borderline Sicilia. 


Our October 2021 report included a quantitative analysis drawn from publicly-available data, as well as from a systematic analysis of news reports. Using this method, we were able to identify nearly a thousand cases. This data allowed us to calculate that over 2,500 people have been accused of people smuggling by sea since 2013. Despite the usefulness of this data, the results are preliminary and imprecise. For this reason we have filed the first requests for access to official information from courts in Sicily using the Italian Freedom of Information Act. We hope that eventually we will be able to obtain and communicate more reliable and scientific data. At the same time, we are continuing our systematic analysis of the news, which we work closely on with borderline-europe, who have been doing this vital work since 2016.  

Fostering Support Networks

The development of a strong network - or of a range of networks - is a fundamental element for raising awareness around this issue within our movement, to share strategies of solidarity and to exchange information with activists and professionals. We are working on three levels: local, national and transnational. At the local level, we are connecting with an already-existing network of people who have been accused of driving boats, offering our solidarity and support. Some of them have already been released from prison, others are waiting for the outcome of their trials, others have been acquitted. Some of them are now our good friends. Over pizza, beers and long conversations, we have exchanged thoughts about the future of the project and the research. We are building an open exchange of ideas, focusing our attention on the people caught between the crosshairs of Europe’s criminalization. Despite linguistic and cultural barriers, our meetings are characterized by an open atmosphere and the desire to get to know each other and build something together. It’s the first time we’ve had meetings at Porco Rosso with simultaneous translation in Arabic, English and Russian! 

At the national level, we are introducing ourselves to already existing and active organizations and networks in other maritime border areas, especially in Calabria and Puglia. Our work on a national level is still in the early stages, and we hope that it will quickly take shape and provide a point of reference and a network for criminalized persons and those supporting them. We presented the report and the project at the Arci Tavola Tonda association in Palermo and in Catania at the local COBAS branch. These were powerful moments where other actors and protagonists were brought into conversation, including the lawyer Serena Romano from Palermo legal clinic for human rights, the lawyer Filippo Finocchiaro from Asgi, and Alfonso di Stefano from the Catania Antiracist Network. We would also like to thank borderline-europe for inviting  us to Berlin in November to present our research alongside Dimitris Choulis from the Human Rights Legal Project (Greece), Eric Mbiakeu, an artist from Cameroon who was accused of driving a boat in 2018, and Sascha Girke from Iuventa crew. In addition, we would like to extend our gratitude to Arci Nazionale for hosting us at the Sabir Festival in Lecce last October. The presentation in Lecce can be viewed in Italian here, and the presentation in Berlin in English here.

We’ll end with a quote from Nelson Mandela that is very close to our hearts: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Read the report "From the sea to prison - The criminalization of boaters in Italy" here.

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