By Patricia Thomas
All migrant Marc Samie has of his fiancee 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 Samie to hold the compass and a satellite phone for navigation on the journey to Italy. 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 she would be on the next boat.
That was last July, and he hasn’t laid eyes on her since. But instead of being treated as a victim in Italy, Samie was arrested by police and charged with facilitating illegal immigration.
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 a new 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 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 who are behind the trafficking and reaping the profits. To date, Italian police haven’t obtained the arrest of a migrant 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, Bonomo added.
In early November, police stood in the port of Augusta watching hundreds of migrants disembark from a navy rescue ship. Interpreters interviewed them to try to figure out who was driving the boats and holding the compasses.
Trafficking organizations in Libya now make cheap dinghies that can only last for eight to nine hours in the water before they sink, Marshal Tonio Panzanaro said. The traffickers then take what he calls “last-minute” smugglers, migrants who are sometimes given a free ride, and make them drive the boat. Behind it all is a “huge movement of money,” he noted, with professional traffickers earning 100,000 euros ($105,000) from a dinghy that costs just 2,000 ($2,100).
“Our problem is that we know how they are operating in Libya, but since there is no government we can’t take the final step, that of arresting the organizers,” he said.
Not all boat drivers and navigators are treated as smugglers. On Sept. 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.
Modica concluded that the two presumed smugglers were actually migrants forced by armed Libyans to drive the boat. Neither seemed to have any experience, they spoke different languages and they couldn’t communicate with one another. In his statement, he wrote that they had been threatened with death, and he ordered them to be freed immediately.
Modica 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.
He added that it is clear when those directing the boat aren’t the real smugglers.
“They are weak. They are fragile. They are scared. They can only talk with lots of difficulty,” he said. “It’s evident that they aren’t part of the problem. They are a victim of the problem.”
In the small Sicilian town of Pachino, eight young African men live in a home run by an organization called Open Europe. Like Samie, many of them were accused of either driving the boat or holding the compass. Several received expulsion orders.
The organization allowed The Associated Press to talk to a Gambian who says he is 15 years old, on condition that his name not be used because he is a minor.
He was on the beach in Libya waiting to climb into a dinghy when armed men told him he had to hold the compass. He replied that he didn’t even know how to use a compass. They threatened to kill him, and beat him with a pipe. He slides up the sleeve of his green sweat suit to reveal a 6-centimeter (2-inch) scar.
“I got inside the boat before they killed me and my mother wouldn’t see me again,” he said.
When he arrived in Italy, he was arrested and held for 15 days before receiving an expulsion order, which he is appealing.
Samie also 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 Louise, but there was nothing.
He is now appealing his expulsion order. In the meantime, he has sent off various emails to organizations, 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.”