Prosecuting asylum-seekers for their ‘own’ smuggling: scafisti in Sicily

From 2015–2018, as a standard operating procedure, roughly 1,300 “captains” and navigators – scafisti (literally: smugglers by boat) – of small dinghies with migrants arriving in Italy have been arrested for suspicion of “aiding clandestine (or irregular) immigration”. Most scafisti are migrants themselves and there are strong indications that they were forced to steer or navigate the boat.

In a recently published contribution to Refugee Survey Quarterly (available here), CICJ fellows Maarten Bolhuis and Joris van Wijk, together with junior researchers Flavia Patanè and Helena Kreiensiek, study this phenomenon. They argue it fits in a broader trend where states increasingly prosecute irregular migrants for their (alleged) involvement in human smuggling during their own migration journey.

These prosecuted migrants face many difficulties in proving duress and are often inadequately advised about the consequences of a criminal conviction on their subsequent immigration procedures. After a conviction, as well as after an acquittal, they are often excluded from official reception centres and have difficulties accessing asylum procedures. When they manage to apply for asylum, they will be denied international protection if they have been convicted. When they cannot be expelled, they may end up in a legal limbo, having to rely on a temporary humanitarian status with strict limitations.