The prosecutor fighting to hold back trafficking

Traffickers responsible for a migrant shipwreck in which more than 700 people died tried to pack hundreds more onboard, the prosecutor investigating the Mediterranean's worst disaster since World War II has revealed.

The prosecutor fighting to hold back trafficking
Migrants wait to disembark from a military ship following a rescue operation at sea as part of the Frontex-coordinated Operation Triton, on May 6th. Photo: Giovanni Isolino/AFP

In three-and-a-half years as chief prosecutor in the Sicilian city of Catania, Giovanni Salvi has ordered the arrest of dozens of people smugglers — but none of them has been alleged to have as much blood on their hands as Mohammed Ali Malek, the Tunisian captain of the recklessly overcrowded boat that capisized and sank off Libya on the night of April 18t/19th.

Hundreds of the victims were locked in the hold, their panicked reactions having contributed to the vessel toppling over following a collision with a merchant ship sent to its aid.

Having seen photographs of the inside of the sunken wreck Salvi has no doubt that the scale of the disaster was as great as depicted by the 24 migrants who survived.

“We will never know the exact number but I fear we will be in a position to confirm a death toll close to 800,” the 63-year-old veteran of Sicily's battles with the mafia told AFP in an interview.

And it could have been much worse. “There were supposed to be 1,200 people on the boat but after having stuffed everyone into every possible corner, they literally could not get anyone else onboard before they left Libya,” Salvi said.

The prosecutor's examination of events on that fateful night was now complete and he said a decision would be made soon on whether Malek, 27, would stand trial on charges of culpable homicide, causing a shipwreck, confinement of human beings and collusion in illegal immigration.

A Syrian who is alleged to have served as first mate on the boat is also in custody awaiting possible trial on lesser charges.

Libya vacuum

The wreck was the third significant disaster of its kind that has landed on Salvi's desk as the migrant flux from North Africa has reached unprecedented proportions in the last 18 months.

More than 200,000 people have landed at Italy's ports since the start of 2014 and more than 5,000 have perished in the attempt to get there.

The first two major wrecks were easier to deal with because the boats had left from Egypt, where Italy's judiciary can count on good cooperation with the local authorities.

“Three traffickers we believe to be the bosses of the criminal gang behind these (first two) wrecks were arrested,” Salvi said.

“But in Libya there is no authority to cooperate with.”  

Salvi describes the smugglers as well-organized but discounts suggestions they form a single network or that they are working hand-in-hand with Italian organized crime.

Traffickers dealing with refugees from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia often offer a made-to-measure travel service designed to get the client to their desired final destination.

Their business depends on trust but they can also be ruthless when required: in Catania last year, smugglers abducted ten migrant youths as part of a ploy to ensure their relatives met agreed payments for their trips.

Dangerous situation

Although he acknowledges there is no easy solution to the current crisis, Salvi is hopeful that a new European Commission plan to distribute asylum-seekers more evenly between most EU countries will help to reduce the level of clandestine immigration.

Many migrants arriving in Italy are desperate not to be registered here as they want to travel further north, either because they have family connections or because they want to make their first initial request for asylum in countries such as Germany, which takes the most refugees in absolute numbers, or Sweden, which takes the most in relation to its existing population.

“This is a very dangerous situation for Europe because it pushes underground people who could stay in legal channels,” Salvi said.

The experienced lawyer is less positive about European plans to try and destroy boats used or potentially used by traffickers.

“That is not going to resolve the problem,” he said, arguing that it would risk destroying the livelihood of Libyan fishermen and causing a backlash against Europe.

“Some say we will get better results by refusing to help the migrants, but even death will not deter people fleeing war and persecution.”


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.