During a press conference on the 9th of March, at the end of a Council of Ministers meeting – exceptionally held in Steccato di Cutro, in the province of Crotone – President Giorgia Meloni said that ‘what this government wants to do is to go after the boat drivers all over the world, because we want to break this trafficking’. A few days earlier, on the 26th of February, at least 79 people died in a shipwreck off the coast of Calabria.
The ‘fight against the boat drivers’ – reiterated several times by the government – is one of the points contained in the decree on immigration approved by the Council of Ministers, which introduces a new type of crime for ‘death or injury as a consequence of illegal immigration crimes’. The penalties range from ten to twenty years for severe or very severe injuries to one or more persons, up to twenty-four for the death of one person and up to thirty if the victims are more than one. The decree also toughens the penalties provided for in the Consolidated Law on Immigration of 1998 against anyone who ‘promotes, directs, organises, finances or carries out the transport of foreigners into the territory of the State’.
‘I believe that what happened in Cutro is the proof that no policy can be more appropriate than the one aimed at breaking the human trafficking cycle sustained by the boat drivers, at fighting the slavery of the third millennium represented by these criminal organisations’, said Meloni referring to the new regulations. ‘We do not intend to perpetuate the approach of those who over the years have allowed the ‘death smugglers’ to basically operate undisturbed’.
In the Prime Minister’s speech the terms “boat drivers” and “smugglers” are used interchangeably. In reality they are not synonyms, and the confusion is no coincidence, according to some.
“Boat driver” is the person who physically drives the boats on which migrants are transported. “Smuggler”, on the other hand, refers to those who organise the journeys.
Every year, dozens of boat drivers are arrested in Italy, a symbol of Italy’s commitment to fighting human trafficking. Analyses and reports show that these are merely window-dressing results though, for at least two reasons: on the one hand, the criminal groups that organise the journeys mostly operate in the countries of departure; on the other hand, the “smugglers” hardly ever take part in the journey. Those arrested are people accused of having driven – even for a short time – a boat attempting to reach European shores.
According to the report Dal mare al carcere, produced by the Porco Rosso Cultural Association of Palermo with Borderline Europe; in 2022 about 350 boat drivers were apprehended in Italy. In many cases, these people have nothing to do with the criminal groups that organised the journey. ‘This is a very complex phenomenon, in which the people who drive the boats do so for a wide range of reasons that are difficult to explain in simple terms, but basically they are the last link in a much larger chain. But still the top of the chain remains in the shadows,’ reads the report. Porco Rosso follows the legal cases of 84 people, 54 of whom are in prison. ‘Far from being guilty for the deaths at sea, they are often also migrants themselves who were denied access to Europe, and who risk their lives to cross borders’. According to the report, there are four profiles of “boat drivers”: there are those who do it “out of necessity” and drive the boat during an emergency, those who are forced to do so by the smugglers, those who are getting paid – often migrants themselves – and, finally, the “captains of the organisation”. The latter represent the only category with links to the migrant smugglers, and they usually go with the boats for a distance and then turn back.
Since 2013, more than 2,500 criminal cases have been filed in Italy against people accused of leading boats carrying migrants. The figure, according to Porco Rosso’s report, ‘gives the measure of the magnitude of a phenomenon that, far from an occasional application of the crime of aiding and abetting illegal immigration, represents the main way in which the law has been applied’ and ‘indicates the clear failure from any point of view of the migration policies that aim to fight irregular immigration: instead of stopping the migratory flow, European policies have only succeeded in criminalising it’. A logic that the Association believes has been applied by all governments regardless of parties.
These proceedings, moreover, have ‘a devastating impact’ on the lives of the people involved, who in most cases do not have access to an effective defence or full protection of their rights.
In light of this, lawyer Gianfranco Schiavone – a member of the Association for Legal Studies on Immigration (Asgi) – when commenting on the new regulations, described the Meloni government’s decree as nothing more than ‘a show of strength’ that is useful ‘only to claim to have done something but without making any substantial changes’. ‘Our experience tells us that often the people arrested as boat drivers are the same migrants who made the journey, who are also placed in the driver’s seat under blackmail. Those who organise the journey are unlikely to get on board. So these people end up being charged with very serious crimes while the real smuggler gets away scot-free’.
The positions made on boat drivers and people smugglers, however, are not the only critical points of the decree approved in Cutro. Camillo Ripamonti from Centro Astalli spoke of ‘a series of inconsistent proposals, which reveal a policy-making lacking an overall vision on the migration issue’.
For instance, the new rules provide for a modification in a restrictive sense of special protection, the permit that was supposed to take into account ‘the nature and effectiveness of the family ties of the person concerned, his effective social integration in Italy, the duration of his stay in the national territory as well as the existence of family, cultural or social ties with his country’. A form of protection that, according to Meloni, ‘has grown disproportionately’ and that is why the aim is to abolish it. Experts believe that as a consequence more and more people will be pushed into illegality.
Other regulations concern the management of reception centres and hotspots, with the expectation of ‘exempting from the public contracts code, allowing for greater speed in carrying out procedures’ for the opening or expansion of Detention Centres for Repatriation (CPR). Places where, as also highlighted by the report “Buchi Neri. La detenzione senza reato nei Centri di Permanenza per i Rimpatri”, fundamental rights are neglected or completely denied.
Finally, the provisions include ‘renewals of residence permits issued for permanent work, self-employment or family reunification’ that will have a ‘maximum duration of three years, instead of two as is the case today’ and the announcement of the Flow Decree. Meloni explained that the measure ‘is being reset – criteria, quotas – and is done at a three-year level, i.e. it is given a projection that also concerns the demand coming from the productive world for certain sectors in which manpower is needed. It establishes preferential lanes for those foreigners who have done training courses in their homeland recognised by the Italian government and who therefore have better chances of finding a professional outlet’.
According to the Association Magistratura Democratica, however, the entry quotas in recent years ‘have not worked, not only because they have been set at a very low level compared to the real needs and because they have a particularly complex activation procedure, especially by small entrepreneurs or private individuals, but especially because very few are keen on calling a person who is unknown to them, who lives abroad and whose work skills they do not have the opportunity to test’. Moreover, ‘migration flows cannot be stopped until the political and economic reasons that drive people to leave their countries of origin and look elsewhere for a place to survive cease to exist’.