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