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.