A dinghy from the search and rescue boat Geo Barents during an operation to rescue dozens of people on an unstable and overcrowded rubber dinghy | Photo: ANSA/MSF
A dinghy from the search and rescue boat Geo Barents during an operation to rescue dozens of people on an unstable and overcrowded rubber dinghy | Photo: ANSA/MSF

A newly released report published by two NGOs denounces the criminalization of migrants accused of being so-called 'scafisti,' or human smugglers.

The report 'Dal mare al carcere' (From the sea to prison) is based on news stories of people who were detained on charges of aiding and abetting irregular immigration by sea drafted by humanitarian organizations Arci Porco Rosso and Borderline Europe.

"Don’t call them 'scafisti' [human smugglers] they are skippers," Sara Traylor, an operator at Arci Porco Rosso, told ANSA, when referring to the migrants who end up captaining the boats crossing the Mediterranean.

The report, ‘From the sea to prison”, which was based on data from 2022 and drafted by Traylor's organization together with Borderline Europe, was put together to provide evidence that many of those who end up captaining boats across the Mediterranean are not in fact human smugglers, as they are often described by the authorities but migrants who perhaps have prior knowledge of seafaring or steering boats.


The two NGOs examined press reports, in particular local news stories, to document cases in which migrants were arrested on charges of favoring irregular immigration by sea.

"In 2022, we counted the arrest of 264 people on such a charge," although the effective number is certainly higher, said Traylor.According to official figures, 350 people were detained on this charge.

"The figure is rising but the number of arrivals has also increased, with 105,000 migrants reaching Italy over the past year," highlighted the operator.

"The ratio of one arrest every 300 [arrivals remains] stable," she noted. "In Italy, people skippering boats are criminalized with the term 'scafista' used by the media and they are tried by courts which hand down years-long sentences," she added.

Arrests mainly among Egyptians, followed by Turks

Compared to previous years, the nationality of those arrested has changed: most of the suspects caught after crossing the Mediterranean from Libya are Egyptian citizens, the report said.

"This is probably due to the opening of a new route at the border with Egypt," the operator said. "We have witnessed, due to the conflict in Ukraine, a drastic decrease of Russian and Ukrainian citizens who were previously extremely present along the Ionian route - now many are citizens of Central Asia," explained Traylor.

"They are taken to Turkey, 'trained' for three days to skipper a boat and sent to sea," she continued. Turkish nationals come in second with around 50 arrests, according to the report. The detention of Western African suspects, previously one-quarter of the total, has instead decreased.

'Law often punishes innocents or unaware' people, thinks lawyer

The migrants who arrive are accused under article 12 of the legislation on immigration (Testo Unico Immigrazione).

"The law punishes those favoring illegal immigration, but in reality it often affects people who are innocent or unaware that they are committing a crime," attorney Giancarlo Liberati, who has followed dozens of such cases, told ANSA.

The prison terms, from three to five years in detention, "are constantly increased due to aggravating circumstances, which range from the transport of more than five people to profit, which is calculated even if the skipper is not paid directly but exempted from paying for the trip," said Liberati. This situation creates "scapegoats" rather than fighting human trafficking, the attorney concluded.


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