Italy: Criminalisation of migrant boat drivers examined in new report


A new report, 'From Sea to Prison: The Criminalization of Boat Drivers in Italy', looks at how the Italian state has arrested and imprisoned hundreds of people who have piloted boats towards the shores of the country, "utilizing criminal law, undercover police operations and emergency anti-Mafia powers to re-enforce Europe’s border regime."

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Produced by ARCI Porco Rosso, Alarm Phone, Borderline Sicilia and borderline-europe, the report provides an in-depth examination of a phenomena that has previously been reported on by The Intercept, and is also well-established state practice in other countries.

In June this year in Greece, a 28-year-old man received a 142-year prison sentence after saving 31 peoples' lives by piloting the boat they were in to safety. Two months earlier, a young Syrian man was handed down a 52-year sentence for "illegal entry" and "facilitating illegal entry". A trial observer from borderline-europe observed that:

"The filing of such charges against migrants arriving on the Greek islands, allegedly identified as boat drivers, has been a systematic approach of the Greek state for several years. It is based on the absurd notion that anyone who drives an inflatable boat carrying people seeking protection is a smuggler. Often the accused are themselves protection seekers and have been coerced into driving the boat."

The UK has also taken steps to punish those piloting boats across the sea from France - in November last year, the Crown Prosecution Service published new guidance that said individuals could be charged with assisting illegal immigration, due to them "facilitating" a journey.

In the case of Italy, the new report shows how the prosecution of drivers has massively increased since 2015, but is failing to achieve its stated aims: it does not prevent deaths at sea, has a huge impact on peoples' lives, even if charges are dropped, and the rights of those charged are frequently breached.

The report is available here. The text of the executive summary is included below.

From Sea To Prison: The Criminalization of Boat Drivers in Italy

Executive summary

Freedom of movement is a right, not a crime. But over the past decade, Italy has arrested thousands of people in connection with driving migrant boats across the Mediterranean Sea. Our report describes their journeys from sea to prison, examining and taking a stand against the criminalization of migration.

Italy has spent decades pursuing people who have done nothing other than drive a boat of migrants towards its shores, utilizing criminal law, undercover police operations and emergency anti-Mafia powers to re-enforce Europe’s border regime.

We have spoken to hundreds of people involved – persons accused of boat driving, ex-prisoners, lawyers, researchers, activists, judges and members of the police and Coast Guard – and studied dozens of court sentences to reveal the full extent of Italy’s process of criminalizing migration.

Life sentences

The prison sentences that have been issued range from 2 years to 20 years – and sometimes even more. Of the nearly 1,000 cases we have discovered through a systematic media review, we have found 24 people with prison sentences of over 10 years, and 6 people who have received life sentences.

Imprisoning refugees

Boat drivers come from many countries, and are often migrants and refugees too. In 2018 and 2019, the police arrested around one person for every hundred migrants who arrived.

From a review of nearly one thousand cases, we estimate that over a third of the arrestees are from North Africa, 20% from Eastern Europe and 20% from West Africa. Many of the West and North African citizens arrested and imprisoned in Italy were forced to drive boats from Libya, a country they were fleeing from. In the case of the Eastern European boat drivers, many recount that they were tricked into people smuggling.

Criminalization causes deaths

Italy, the EU and the UN have consistently claimed that arresting boat drivers is a way of cracking down on human smuggling, in order to prevent deaths at sea. But our report demonstrates that criminalizing boat drivers has actually contributed to some of the worst maritime disasters in recent history.

Our report examines:

  • available official data on the arrest and imprisonment of boat drivers
  • nearly 1,000 cases reported by the Italian media over the last 10 years
  • how the Italian law has been consistently modified over the last 25 years to criminalize and persecute boat drivers
  • the different kinds of boat drivers punished under the law, including those forced to drive boats under threats and violence
  • how all the sea routes into Italy have been criminalized: from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Greece and Albania
  • how boat drivers are identified at sea on the basis of faulty photography and unreliable witnesses
  • court cases that fail to protect the rights of arrestees, sentencing people on flimsy evidence with little access to defense
  • how the Italian prison system fails to protect the rights of foreign prisoners, and how boat drivers are prevented from accessing house arrest
  • the social and economic consequences for boat drivers after leaving prison – even if they are found innocent

Our report demonstrates that:

  • criminalization of migrant boat drivers in Italy has consistently increased over the last 25 years, especially since 2015.
  • criminalizing boat drivers does not prevent deaths at sea – it contributes to shipwrecks and maritime disasters
  • the consequences of being arrested as a boat driver has a serious impact on people’s lives – even if the charges are dropped
  • the rights of imprisoned boat drivers are being overlooked: contact with families is often non-existent, there are almost no translators in the Italian prison system, and access to adequate defense is not protected.

Image: Kalle, CC BY-SA 2.0

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