Migrants arrested in Italy for people-smuggling may be victims

When Marc Samie refused to hold the compass and a satellite phone for navigation on the journey to Italy, armed men shot at the ground between his legs.

In this photo taken on Friday, November. 11, 2016, Marc Samie sits by the sea in Pachino, Sicily, waiting for news of his pregnant wife Louise, who he last saw standing on a beach in Libya. tears rolling down her face as traffickers forced him into a rubber dinghy at gunpoint. Salvatore Cavalli / AP
Powered by automated translation

PACHINO, SICILY // All migrant Marc Samie has of his wife is a picture in his mind. Louise, seven and a half months pregnant, is standing silently on a beach in Libya, tears rolling down her face as traffickers force him at gunpoint into a rubber dinghy with a compass.

The armed men had ordered Mr Samie to hold the compass and a satellite phone for navigation on the journey to Italy, but he refused. So they fired a Kalashnikov at the ground between his legs, and told him to take the compass or they would kill the couple. They said his wife would be on the next boat.

That was last July, and Mr Samie hasn’t laid eyes on her since. But instead of being treated as a victim in Italy, he was arrested by police and charged with facilitating illegal immigration.

Mr Samie, a 21-year-old from Togo, is one of hundreds of migrants who are caught up in the Italian legal system as police, prosecutors and judges struggle to combat human trafficking. They are the victims of an increasingly-used tactic where professional smugglers avoid being caught by forcing migrants, many of them minors, to take the helm of the boats.

Almost every day, Italian officials detain men accused of driving the boats, but don’t know if they are traffickers or migrants. While overall numbers are not available, 179 smugglers – 26 of them minors – were detained this year at the port of Pozzallo alone, where Mr Samie came in. That compares to 147 last year.

In another port, Augusta, more than 190 smugglers have been arrested so far this year, according to police. And in Catania district, trafficking arrests have risen dramatically from 13 in 2013 to 79 as of August.

Police are well aware that they aren’t reaching the criminals behind the trafficking who are reaping the profits. To date, Italian police haven’t obtained the arrest of a single trafficker in Libya, said Andrea Bonomo, deputy prosecutor for Catania.

“[We are] making the arrests at what I would define as the lowest level, the so-called smugglers, the ones who drive the boats and who are often migrants,” he said. “They risk their lives together with the others.”

There are no numbers on convictions. But smugglers can get five to 15 years in prison, Mr Bonomo added.

On September 7, Gigi Modica, a judge in Palermo threw out the case against two accused smugglers, a Somali and a Gambian. The men were driving and holding the compass on a rubber dinghy with 118 migrants on board. A dozen passengers died, and the men were accused of multiple manslaughter.

Mr Modica concluded that the two presumed smugglers were actually migrants, forced by armed Libyans to drive the boat. In his statement, he wrote that they had been threatened with death, and ordered them to be freed immediately.

The judge said Libyan traffickers are choosing sub-Saharan Africans to drive the boats and take the compasses. He said defendants had told of friends being killed by traffickers because they refused to lead the boats.

Mr Samie spent 15 days in jail before he was asked to sign an expulsion order. He then headed back to the port in search of news of his wife, but there was nothing.

He is now appealing his expulsion order. In the meantime, he has sent off various emails to organisations, looking for Louise. He has no idea if she is alive or gave birth to their baby.

“The last time I saw her, she cried,” he said. “I just said to her, we’ll meet here ... I will wait for her.”

* Associated Press