“When I was released from prison, the gate was just open. And they asked me to go. I don’t have anybody in Italy. I didn’t have one euro. I didn’t know where I was.” Emmanuel* smiles without joy, revealing the gap from a missing tooth. He was arrested upon arrival at the port of Pozzallo in Sicily, one of the main arrival points for migrants and asylum seekers. He did not know what crime he had committed until three days after his imprisonment when he appeared in front of a judge for the first time. He then discovered that he was guilty of having facilitated illegal immigration.
Emmanuel was a soldier in the Nigerian army. He was “living well”, he says, but had to discharge himself from the army as soldiers were being sent to fight Boko Haram like animals to the slaughterhouse. He thus embarked on his journey to Europe, with the goal of seeking international protection. But on the beach, before boarding the boat that was to take him to safety, his Libyan smugglers (armed groups, criminal gangs, and even state officials who control the trafficking routes to Italy) told him that he had to read the compass. They knew he used to be a soldier, and wanted to capitalise on his versatile survival skills. When he refused, he was beaten, losing the tooth that is missing from his smile, but which he keeps safe in his bag until today. “In Libya, there is no government. You don’t have anything to say. I had no option. It is better to take the risk than to die in the hands of the Libyans”, he explains, as if he were pleading his case.
Emmanuel is not the only one to have been arrested in Italy for being forced to guide people to land – with the only alternative being death or torture at the hands of unaccountable men acting with impunity. According to Paola Ottaviano, from Borderline Sicilia, cases like his are on the rise. It is common practice that with each arrival the authorities arrest a few people who are identified as people smugglers, often prioritising getting witness statements over providing relief to the rescued. However, in recent months “there has been an increase in people who tell us that they have been forced by traffickers in Libya to drive the boat or to read the compass. This is different from the past when people accepted to drive in exchange for a discount on the trip or for bringing on board a family member for free”, explains Ms. Ottaviano. Indeed, Emmanuel tells us “when I appeared before the judge, when he asked me, I told him the truth. Yes, I did it, but it was under duress. I paid for money to cross [sic]”. His missing tooth may be a testament to his innocence, as is the bullet wound in the leg of the migrant who drove the same boat, shot for initially refusing. Yet sometimes people can count themselves lucky to only sustain physical injuries. Some lose family members. David*, a Togolese man, was forced to read the compass after his heavily pregnant 19-year-old girlfriend was taken away from him, with the promise that she was to be sent on another boat to Italy where they could reunite – if he found his way. David did find his way, but he did not find his girlfriend. That was six months ago. He was arrested just like Emmanuel.
The injustice that people like Emmanuel and David are subject to is not limited to being arrested for a crime they did not choose to commit. Once imprisoned, they do not often understand what is happening to them, because information, when it is not misinformation, is only provided in a language that is incomprehensible to them. “When I was in prison, I signed many papers and I did not know what I was signing. All these papers were written in Italian. I do not understand Italian, but you have to sign”, says Emmanuel. As Ms. Ottaviano explains, the arrested asylum seekers are assigned a lawyer who often advises them to accept a plea bargain, whereby they declare themselves guilty with the prospect of being released. Crucially, however, they do not understand the consequences of being convicted following the plea bargain. In fact, a conviction for facilitating illegal immigration implies receiving an expulsion decree and removes any possibility of legalising their situation in Italy, for example by applying for asylum. At the same time, their conviction also prevents them from accessing assisted repatriation programmes offered by international organisations. Without money, and often without documents, they have no choice but to remain in Italy, trapped in a situation of illegality and invisibility from which they see no way out.
This is how, after a month and three days, Emmanuel was released from prison, made to walk through that open gate that leads to nowhere. While in prison, he had understood from the appointed lawyer that he would be brought to a reception centre. He thought that the case was over; that he would finally be able to seek international protection. Instead, he found himself sleeping on a park bench close to the bus station in the town of Ragusa, surviving on what a few “good samaritans” would give him.
Today, Emmanuel lives in a temporary reception centre with seven other people. He has been taken away from the streets and given shelter and adequate information thanks to a collaboration between Borderline Sicilia, Oxfam Italia, and the Diaconia Valdese, in a project aimed at those who remain excluded by the Italian reception system. In fact, all of his fellow residents are trapped in a similar situation of invisibility, many after a conviction like Emmanuel’s; some because they were rejected for little reason upon arrival, or because they lost the rights they had as minors the day they turned 18.
“There is no way I can go back to my country. I am a soldier who ran away from the frontline of war. Going back to my country is like signing [away] my life. I came to Italy to ask for international protection, but now everything is going upside-down”, concludes Emmanuel with a momentary expression of resignation.
When counting the thousands of migrants who die with neither a name nor dignity, swallowed by the sea every year, we should add people like Emmanuel, who have their right to exist as individuals somewhere in the world taken away. They may have survived the sea, but they are engulfed up by a system in which immigration is reduced to ‘trafficking’ and a security threat to be fought; to decontextualised numbers used to win political favour; and to a source of readily exploitable labour for the criminal organisations that the authorities are supposed to be fighting. This is a system in which discourse and reality are growing further and further apart. On the one hand, the Italian government and the European Union announce more expulsions and a stronger fight against human trafficking, including a disingenuous agreement with Libya. On the other (that of reality), many of those who are expelled often remain in Italy, only to become invisible. Unsurprisingly, the arrests of “human smugglers” contribute nothing to the dismantling of trafficking networks, as many of those who are arrested are nothing but victims of those same criminal networks – only ever guilty of wanting to survive.
*The names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees.
This article was first published in Thraedable.com