After more than a decade of heading Sicily’s taskforce on illegal immigration, #Carlo_Parini has been told his role will end.
The history of the migrant crisis in the central Mediterranean, the story of its dead and shipwrecked, is all contained in a messy desk overflowing with files and folders in a tiny room in the prosecutor’s office in Syracuse.
Somewhere among the heaps of papers is Commissario Carlo Parini, head of an illegal-immigration taskforce. Parini is pensive. Late last month it was announced that the taskforce’s office in the historic south-eastern Sicilian city was closing, with an abrupt explanation: “Arrivals from Libya in Sicily have decreased by 80%, and this office is no longer needed.”
From 2006 until earlier this month, the 56-year-old Parini – who at 6ft 5in towers over most people – headed the Interforce Group on Illegal Immigration in Sicily (Gicic). In that time nearly 200,000 people arrived in the island. Their stories are all catalogued in the dusty folders that cover his office. Over the past few days they have been transferred to cardboard boxes, their final destination the basement.
“They say the arrivals are over,” says Parini. “And yet this year we intercepted 12 sailing boats transporting 900 migrants from Turkey. We’ve followed these investigations for many years. We had almost arrived at the heart of the criminal organisation. It’s a shame to stop now.”
Looking around the office in search of something he fears has been lost, he suddenly exclaims. “Here it is! Finally! I’d been looking for this for days. Read this: it’s the first migrant case I worked on.”
He remembers it as if it were yesterday. Thirty-five shivering Sri Lankans arrived in Italy from Egypt aboard a wooden boat one winter evening in 1999, when Parini was still a junior anti-Mafia police officer. As he waited for their arrival at the port of Riposto, just along the coast from Syracuse, he had no idea that the moment would change his life and set the course for the next 20 years of his career.
The following day the newspapers in Italy reported confidently that the arrivals were “an isolated case”. No one – not the police, and certainly not the press – could have predicted then what would happen over the coming years, when Europe would be forced to come to grips with the most intense migrant and refugee crisis since the second world war. That arrival in the port of Riposto was a mere hint of what was to come.
In 2000, 2,782 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to reach Sicily; 18,225 came in 2002. In 2011 it was 57,181. Between 2006 and last November, Parini handled 1,084 arrivals, investigated the deaths of more than 2,000 migrants, and arrested 1,081 people accused of human trafficking. This last total earned him the attention of the international press, who lionised him. It even earned him a nickname: “Smuggler Hunter”.
“We worked day and night, relentlessly,” Parini says. “We’d spend entire days at the port. One of my colleagues had a heart attack. He had had no sleep for three consecutive days. And then that cursed day came in October 2013 that changed the migrant crisis for ever. That day that changed us all.”
The mass drowning off Lampedusa on 3 October 2013 marked a turning point. That night 368 people perished in the sea in an attempt to reach Sicily. Until then European governments had largely watched from their capitals. Now they agreed that it was time to act. On 18 October, Italy launched the Mare Nostrum operation, a military intervention for humanitarian ends intended to prevent such tragedies. Parini became one of the commanders of the mission, and aboard the military ship San Giorgio he began patrolling the waters of the central Mediterranean and rescuing migrant boats in distress.
“We saved thousands of lives,” Parini says. “And at the same time we attempted to investigate the people involved in the trafficking business, who were exploiting migrants and getting rich in the process.”
Italian prosecutors convinced their EU counterparts to join the crusade on the premise of a somewhat romantic principle: that the same strategy employed to capture mafiosi could be used to combat people-smugglers. Sicilian prosecutors suspected that among smugglers there was a power structure regulated by an honour code similar to the Cosa Nostra’s. Wire taps – such a vital weapon in the fight against the Mafia – also came in handy. Sitting behind their desks, the prosecutors eavesdropped on hundreds of people in Africa.
But without credible intelligence the hunt from a distance against human traffickers was deeply frustrating. “We arrested thousands of boat drivers,” says Parini. “That was our duty. But the real smugglers were in Libya. And we didn’t have men in Libya.’’
While the prosecutors continued their hunt, in Europe the presence of migrants and refugees led to protests, a rise in rightwing populism, and authoritarian and repressive policies towards asylum seekers.
Mare Nostrum was superseded by Operation Triton, which was intended to patrol the Mediterranean more than save lives. In 2015 non-governmental ships began rescue operations in Libyan waters, saving tens of thousands of lives, while the Italian authorities began attacking aid groups, confiscating vessels without just cause.
“Personally, in my work I have never had problems with NGOs,” says Parini. “In fact, some of them were very efficient.”
Migrant arrivals started to nosedive in February 2017 when, in an attempt to stem the flow, Marco Minniti, the former interior minister from the centre-left Democratic party, struck a deal with the Libyan coastguard that allowed it to return migrants and refugees to a country where aid agencies say they suffer torture and abuse. “I have no knowledge of what is going on in Libya,” says Parini. “But given what I’ve been told by the thousands of migrants that I’ve questioned, it must be hell. Injuries and signs of torture on their bodies are proof. Many women were raped in Libya, and those who gave birth in Sicily abandoned their children because they were the result of physical violence, a violence that they wanted to forget for ever.”
Amnesty International estimates that about 20,000 people were intercepted by the coastguard in 2017 and taken back to Libya.
This June a new government took power in Rome in the form of an alliance between the populist Five Star Movement and the rightwing League. The new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, is noted for his anti-immigrant policies and his first move was to close Italy’s ports to the rescue boats. Parini prefers not to comment on Salvini’s tactics, and perhaps his silence speaks louder than words.
Today NGO rescue boats have almost disappeared from the central Mediterranean. People seeking asylum are still risking the crossing but, without the rescue boats, shipwrecks are likely to rise dramatically. The death toll has fallen in the past year, but the number of those drowning as a proportion of arrivals has risen sharply in the past few months, with the possibility of dying during the crossing now three times higher.
Parini left his office in mid-December. After heading one of the most important taskforces charged with fighting illegal immigration in Italy, he is now working for the customs bureau. The history of the migrant crisis, now stored in a basement in Syracuse, will also be indelibly lodged in the memory of this man: a man who will never forget the 167 bodies he was forced to look in the face.
“I will take those faces to my grave, and maybe even beyond,” says Parini.