They work night and day to build Santa’s grotto. It’s the people who chop the wood, who paint the sled or the Christams tree, who pick up leaves to create small nativity scenes. It’s during these activities that there is a visit from a lawyer or a phone call with parents in Senegal or Ghana, who, some time ago, believed them dead. They are waiting to go back to prision.
The carpenters who are bulding Santa’s grotto at the multicultural laboratory Terra Viva, near Catania - with Mount Etna covered in snow in the background - are not normal carpenters, but they are smugglers.
“Smuggler, what does the word smuggler mean ? I’m not a smuggler, I’m really not and I didn’t drive the boat. I was beaten for five days inside a prison in Tripoli, in a room with all the people who haven’t paid for the trip yet”, said Alexandre, whose nickname is Hulk because of his muscular physique, although he listens to Catholic songs on the radio. “When we were on the boat, Libyans took me by the neck and threatened me with a gun to the head. They forced me to drive, and they gave the gps to a Gambian boy only because he spoke English”, continued Abdou, who is here under house arrest after two years in prison in Catania. “The police took me to prison bare-footed and I was in solitary confinement for one month because I had scabies”, he added.
There are stories which have several types of violence in common, such as the following examples: “If you try to go back we’ll kill you”. John said he had been tortured in a detention centre in Tripoli and even on a beach in Sabratha before his trip to Italy: “Look at this”, he showed us his face: “They marked me with fire and iron, like an animal”.
Isaac, who is from Ghana just like John, told a similiar story: “They always beat us. They asked me to drive the boat, I replied no and they said to me that they would kill me. I was terrified, I didn’t know the route and I dreaded it”. Isaac arrived in the port of Catania on the 24th June 2016 rescued by an Italian military ship. During the rescue there was agitation among migrants on board and a Nigerian woman died: “People who travelled with me thanked me for having saved their lives”.
Smugglers are generally sentenced to between 5 and 15 years’ imprisonment and they have to pay a fine of 15,000 or 25,000 euros for each person they have transported to Italy. An exorbitant sum of money that may reach around one million euros and, obviously, migrants are unable to pay: “One of my clients who was convicted to two years and six months in prision has to pay a fine of 924,445 euros”, lawyer Rosa Emanuela Lo Faro explained. She has defended more than 50 smugglers in her career: “The law has to distinguish between criminals and people who are forced with guns to drive boats. Only one in ten is a professional smuggler. There is a legislative gap in Italy”.
There are lots of special circumstances relating to the crime of encouraging clandestine immigration: the transport of 5 and more people, the risk for the passengers’ lives on an unsafe boat, the presence of weapons on board and profit. Vita.it met some smugglers who declared that they didn’t have any weapons on board and they even paid for the trip as all others migrants did.
I’ll never forget the eyes of a minor accused of being a smuggler. He always cried while he repeated he was a child.
“Article 12 should be modified. The smuggler stereotype has changed recently. And we are asking to consider these kind of smugglers as victims of the human trade”, Paola Ottaviano and Germana Graceffo, lawyers of Borderline Sicilia association, suggested. Their report shows that two smugglers in 100 migrants are generally arrested.
Many lawyers file for the acquittal of their clients on the basis of the state of necessity, but, at the moment only a few smugglers have been acquitted on these grounds. Therefore, some lawyers go for plea-bargains.
On the 22 March 2017, the Prosecutor of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, explained how “people who drive these boats are now inadequate and they don’t belong to the migrants smuggling organisation. They are chosen by chance among the migrants who are travelling”.
The Prosecution of Catania said to Vita.it that they have decided not to proceed with preventive detention of occasional smugglers anymore, because their behaviour is not that dangerous to require their custody.
Despite the Prosecution from Catania’s position, smugglers who were sentenced went back to prison, like John who is leaving the Santa’s grotto. “He bought detergent to wash his clothes, new toothpaste and a toothbrush. My boys are devastated, they are crying because they don’t understand why they have to go to prison. Even the police said to me that John is a good boy. The State doesn’t do anything for them”, told Giuseppe Messina, President and founder of the Insieme association who created the multicultural laboratory Terra Viva.
“I’ll never forget the eyes of a minor accused of being a smuggler. He always cried while he repeated he was a child. After a while, we discovered he was not a minor and he left prision after one year and a half”, said Salvo Coco, a psycologist inside the prisons of Catania and Giarre: “In prison there aren’t any good interpreters. When these young smugglers want to say something they always cry and they punch the wall. And there are cases of self-mutiliation”, the psycologist added. “We haven’t seen true smugglers for a long time. These migrants have scars on their bodies and on their souls. They are often beaten with a shotgun, one of the young smugglers we have treated had his teeth pulled out by pliers” Giuseppe Cannella, psycologist of Doctors for human rights, added.
In the Santa’s grotto everything is ready for the opening. The carpenters who built it prefer to stay behind the scenes eating a piece of panettone. “I live with these boys. I can’t sleep at night because I think about the day when they will go back to prison. People who make mistakes have to go to prison, not them. They are innocent”, added Giuseppe who called upon American soldiers of the nearby military base of Sigonella, to help his carpenters.
Santa’s grotto is opening to visitors now. Giuseppe is saying goodbye to John while other smugglers are crying for him. A child is sat on Santa Claus’ lap, his dream is to find a ship under his Christmas tree of which he wants to be the captain of.