The smuggler from Mariupol

The Smuggler from Mariupol
by Valeria Colombo
translated by Richard Braude

Published in Left on 1 of April 2022. 

M. left Ukraine and   came to   Italy in 2018, when he was only 22 years old,   steering   a sail boat that  carried 46 Iraqi refugees on board. After three years in prison, sentenced for facilitating illegal  immigration, last year M. was deported to Mariupol. A few days after the Russian bombings began,  we lost contact with him.

Today Italy is opening its doors to Ukrainian refugees – but up until the  very recent past they have been caught in the cross-hairs of European border control: dozens of  Ukrainian citizens have been arrested over recent years and deported from Italy, accused of being  driving migrant boats.

This is M’s story, the smuggler from Mariupol. From inside an old hatchback, M. crosses a deserted neighborhood under   looming heavy   clouds. A  thick flock of black birds circles above the old soviet blocks. A couple of tanks push out into the  street, jolting on the crumpled asphalt. M. gets out of the car and walks along a dirt road where  people gather in small groups between the fields and cottages. In the background, a black column of smoke breaks up the grayness, and the crack of gunfire interrupts the silence. Something is lying in  the middle of the track, and M. continues his long walk   down   the road until he   reaches   it: it’s the  abandoned body of a woman. M. lives in Mariupol, the main Ukrainian port and the city that has been most heavily attacked by  the Russian offensive. “We don’t have any electricity and they’re cutting off the mobile phone  lines” he told me back in February. “The shops are closed and it’s difficult to even buy food and  water.” He sends me the photos of empty shelves, of dozens of people in line at the store, and of  buildings wrecked by bombs. “We have a basement where we can hide if we see things are getting  really bad” he reassured me. Since the beginning of March, I haven’t had any news from him.

M. describes the horrors of war to me in my own language, Italian. He speaks it because he was in  Italy for three years, after arriving on the Calabrian coastline in a sail boat in the spring of 2018. He  was 22. Born and raised in the Ukrainian port city, he knows the sea and works the boats.

Four  years ago a Turkish agency offered him a job, accompanying a family for a tourist trip from Greece  to the Aeolian islands. The engagement took on an unexpected twist, however, when – with a gun  pointed at his chest – M. found himself at the head of a boat with 46 Iraqi refugees.

Destination: the Italian coastline. In Italy, promoting, directing, organizing, financing or facilitating the entrance of foreign citizens  into national territory is a crime, ‘facilitating clandestine immigration’. This is what M. was accused of, and for which he was sentenced to three years of prison. Despite his impeccable behavior during his period of detention, once he had done his time he was handed an expulsion notice, giving him  seven days to leave Italy.
In the midst of the pandemic, there weren’t any air connections to Ukraine, and his lawyer managed to get him a place on a coach service directed to Kiev. Once he arrived at the Austrian border, he  was stopped again as a clandestino, and detained in a deportation center; he was then taken by plane to Kiev after around two weeks of detention. M. has thus been rejected by and deported from two  countries of the European Union that is now proactively declaring its   will to accept refugees from his same country.

M. was introduced to me by his lawyer, Giancarlo Liberati, who has defended 18 such smugglers  from Ukraine over the few years. Five of them were deported after years in Italian prisons. They are now in Odessa, Kherson and Mariupol, living under the bombardments. The other 13 remain in jail. “It’s my duty to defend my clients, but these smuggling trials are having a huge impact on my life: I can’t just turn my back on these people, because I am absolutely convinced of their innocence” he tells me.

“We need a change in legislation: this law – article 12 of the immigration act – has to be  revised.” The community center ‘Arci Porco Rosso’ in Palermo, Sicily, published a report last year – ‘From  Sea to Prison’ – claiming that over the last eight years, 2.599 people have been arrested in Italy  accused of being ‘boat drivers, organizers and connectors’. The center has been running a legal  advice service for years: “We realized that a lot of migrants who come to us   getting our from   prison  had just finished a sentence of 2, 5 or 6 years as boat drivers”, recounts Sara Traylor, a member of  the group in Palermo, who works on supporting people accused of this crime.“Through writing to prisoners, we’re now in touch with people who are living out sentences of 20 or 30 years.”In  2021, along with borderline-europe and Alarm Phone, the group identified 154 cases of arreste boat  drivers, 34 of whom are Ukrainian nationals. Today much is being   said   about how Ukrainian refugees need to be immediately welcomed in  Europe, but the EU has been pushing forward a violent policy of border closure for years, while  eliminating almost every   method of safe passage into the old continent. Italian criminal law is being used in a functional way to support these border closures, through a systematic criminalization of  border crossing, embodied in the figure of the boat drivers. But those who are now at safety are far  from condemning the actions of the boat drivers:  

“Those guys who drive boat and they finish up in  jail – you know, these people, some of them I see them like angel, like angels who have be in  prison. People who save life and after they have to be in prison. So God help them, because they  save other people’s lives as well. Like my own life”, F. tells us, an activist from Biafra who Italy has guaranteed protection. Italy didn’t protect M., however. After imprisoning him, Italy sent him back to a place where, today, the cynical destructive forces of yet another futile and bloody war are exploding.

Each day I hope  that M. and his loved ones will be able to get to a safe place, as happened to the 46 refugees who,  thanks to him, made it to Italy’s shores a few years ago. I dream of a fleet of ships ready to  challenge the borders that are enclosing women and men in the madness of state-sponsored murder  – and I hope that among us, ready to take them to safety, there are thousands of people with the  same courage   as   those we   call   smugglers.