Young people, little more than children, were convicted and imprisoned as adults, accused of “scafismo” at the time of landing on the Italian coast. While the real smugglers remain in Libya. The numbers aren’t there, the stories are. “The small boats that cross the central Mediterranean have no crew. Smugglers and traffickers are not on board: they stay in Libya”, says Stefania Gasparri, a volunteer from the Astalli center in Catania. The association has been active since 1999 and “every year sees men and women fleeing wars and persecution, often victims of torture, who arrive after journeys to the edge of reality, access their services”. Like those of Saidu Bangura, now 22, and Joof Ousaineau, born in 1999 in Barra, near Banjul, Gambia’s capital. Saidu was only 13 when he left Sierra Leone. He crosses the desert, is kidnapped, tortured, blackmailed: first in Algeria, then in Libya. Finally he arrives at Pozzall: it is the day before his eighteenth birthday. Saidu is arrested as a smuggler. Joof is also a boy on the run, he leaves Gambia to escape a father who wanted to kill him, convinced that he had converted to Christianity. He is 15 when he boards a dilapidated small boat in Zwara, Libya. He is the youngest on board, and during the voyage he is seasick enough to be taken to hospital as soon as he disembarks in Italy. “He drove the little boat”, testify some passengers. Joof is not yet 16, but according to the x-ray of his wrist, he would have been 18, so he spends almost a year in the Pagliarelli prison (for adults) in Palermo. The European journalistic collective Lost in Europe (lostineurope.eu), which since 2018 has been telling the stories of unaccompanied foreign minors arriving in Europe, together with ANSA tried to analyze the phenomenon of minors who ended up in prison as accused adults in Italy of contribute to illegal immigration.
According to the 2021 report “From the sea to prison” by the NGO Alarm Phone and Arci Porco Rosso Palermo, made by crossing police data and news reports from 2013, in 8 years there are “at least 2,500 arrests of migrants accused of being smugglers in summary lawsuits – explains Richard Brodie from Arci Porco Rosso -. A very high number”. For 7 years, Joof has had this stone on his head, says his lawyer, Cinzia Pecoraro. With the few elements available, she manages to find Joof’s father, who sends her the birth certificate. “With these documents, the judge releases him and disputes in the judgment the scientific evidence used in Italy to determine age: the X-ray of the wrist”. The parameters on which this study is based, Pecoraro explains, “are those of the Anglo-Saxon population of the 1950s, which do not adapt well to the African population of 2020. Not only that: the radiography has an error gap of up to two years”. Today, Joof lives with a friend in Partinico, pays the rent and has no help. He is a shepherd of sheep. He cannot change jobs because he does not have a residence permit, but his dream is to become a chef.
“Legislation was tightened after the Lampedusa shipwreck on October 3, 2013,” where 368 people, mostly Eritreans, died a few kilometers from the coast, with 20 missing, recalls lawyer Pecoraro. “Any emergency legislation shows enormous criticalities: in this case it has too often led to the condemnation of innocent people who were reported by other subjects, such as those who drove the boat”. Since 2013, the Bicocca juvenile prison in Catania has begun to fill up with foreign children accused of assisting immigration, which species. 4 bis in the correctional facility, which prohibits the provision of benefits.
“Many were simple fishermen and therefore they knew how to drive the boat”, explains Elvira Iovine from Centro Astalli in Catania. According to the director of Ipm, the Youth Prison Institute, Maria Randazzo, at least 50 boys aged 5 have arrived. “Stopping the last link in the chain, which – perhaps – drives the boat, without going to investigate the real masters of human trafficking in Libya, is not a sufficient response to public opinion and to Europe”, explains the association Border Sicily Paola Ottaviani , lawyer from Saidu. Now, many of the trials “that started in those years end in acquittals,” he says. Today Saidu lives in a community of nuns, is a pizza maker in Modica and awaits the hearing for the test. After many years, his lawyer managed to get his case tried in the juvenile court. Saidu says he actually ran the punt. “I didn’t know it was a crime. What could I do? I was just trying to save my life”, he explains and remembers that when he was in Libya, in the ‘connection house’, he was without money, but he was awake. “One night they take me with another boy to a marina. They tell me: ‘If you can start the engine, you’re free'”. Saidu starts the boat, the other guy doesn’t.
He is not released, but for a week every night they take him to the beach to teach him how to drive the boat. Last time they put him in a suitcase, he takes him to the sea and gets him on a boat full of people. “If you go back, we will shoot you,” they threaten. After years, he still can’t be calm: “I can’t sleep, my brain does nothing but think about everything that has happened.”