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Italy using anti-mafia laws to scapegoat migrant boat drivers, report finds | Global development

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Italian police have arrested more than 2,500 migrants for smuggling or aiding illegal immigration since 2013, often using anti-mafia laws to bring charges, according to the first comprehensive analysis of official data on the criminalisation of refugees and asylum seekers in Italy.

The report by three migrant rights groups has collected police data and analysed more than 1,000 criminal cases brought by prosecutors against refugees accused of driving vessels carrying asylum seekers across the Mediterranean.

The report by Arci Porco Rosso, the NGO Alarm Phone, and the nonprofit Borderline Sicilia, found evidence of police officers offering immigration papers and other incentives to migrants to persuade them to testify against the suspected boat drivers, who, in some cases were asylum seekers forced at gunpoint by traffickers to navigate refugee boats.

The NGOs claim the new evidence in the report confirms that Italy has spent decades pursuing a policy of criminalising asylum seekers, alleging prosecutors have been filling its prisons with innocent men used as scapegoats.

“We have examined over 1,000 court cases, spoken to hundreds of people involved,” the report stated. “We spoke to persons accused of boat driving, lawyers, judges and members of the police and coastguard, to reveal the full extent of Italy’s process of criminalising migration.”

Using police data and evidence presented in hundreds of court cases, the report revealed how refugees were targeted for prosecution.

Before sending a boat to Italy, from Libya, Tunisia, or Turkey, the report said smugglers often choose a migrant as a driver. This can be someone who does not have enough money to pay for the trip or with experience of navigation.

When the boat enters Italian waters, the authorities ask passengers to identify the driver, who is then arrested.

An Italian jail.
Boat drivers, who are often refugees, are being prosecuted for serious charges, such as human trafficking and criminal association, with sentences ranging from 15 years to life in prison. Photograph: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Boat drivers, who often come from war-torn countries, are accused of crimes, from illegally piloting migrant boats to the country, to trafficking in migrants, to criminal association. They can face sentences from 15 years to life in prison.

Although in several court cases judges have recognised the “state of necessity” – that the unlawful conduct is justified to protect the perpetrator or another person from imminent and serious danger – hundreds of cases are currently making their way through Italy’s legal system.

Since 2013, at least 24 people have received sentences of more than 10 years, while six have been given life sentences, according to the report.

“This happens when, unfortunately, during the journey, some of the passengers die,” said Maria Giulia Fava at Arci Porco Rosso. ‘‘In that case, the boat driver is charged with murder. It is in those moments that justice is transformed into a terrible machine that risks destroying the lives of these people forever.”

Four Libyan professional footballers were arrested in Sicily in 2015 and sentenced to 30 years after 49 people died during a sea crossing. The men’s families and friends said they were refugees fleeing the civil war to continue their careers in Germany and were forced to pilot the boat. Last year, Libyan warlord Gen Khalifa Haftar reportedly refused to release 18 Italian fishers accused of illegally fishing in Libyan territorial waters until Italy had freed the footballers. But the move was unsuccessful.

Italian prosecutors’ use of anti-mafia laws in the cases of migrant boat drivers, which the report said has been framed as a continuation of the country’s prolonged battle against organised crime, has led to hundreds of boat drivers facing draconian charges, such as criminal association.

Evidence in the report appears to show that in some instances police have offered incentives to migrants to identify those driving the boat as being part of smuggling operations.

“In one case a Nigerian witness told us that the police officers promised him that, by providing an accusatory statement [against a boat driver], he would be allowed to go to school and have a bed in a hostel,”, said the report. “Sometimes, the same thing happens with translators, who are asked by the authorities to find the boat drivers among the other passengers.”

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Lives lost at Europe’s borders and Afghan MPs in exile: human rights this fortnight – in pictures

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A roundup of the struggle for human rights and freedoms, from Mexico to Manila

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Belgium tightens Covid rules as health system ‘is cracking’

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Belgium has introduced new measures to curb the surge of Covid-19 infections in the country, following the third emergency meeting of federal and regional governments in three weeks.

“The autumn wave is much heavier than was estimated,” Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo said on Friday (3 December).

“The infection rates are among the highest in Europe and the pressure in healthcare has become unsustainable,” he also said, arguing that new measures are necessary because “the system is cracking”.

One item on the agenda that proved to be divisive was the closure of schools – a move supported by experts and the federal government but opposed by regional governments.

Belgium’s so-called concertation committee of federal and regional governments finally decided to keep schools open, but it impose a longer, three-week, Christmas holiday for primary and pre-primary education. The holiday will now run from 20 December to 10 January.

According to Flemish prime minister Jan Jambon, this extra week will be used to administer the booster shot to the teachers.

And until the school holiday, a class will go until quarantine after two cases of Covid-19 are detected (previously three cases). Additionally, all extracurricular activities will be barred.

Children from the age of six upwards will also have to wear a face mask at school and all other places where its use is compulsory. And parents have been advised to test their children regularly.

For this coming weekend, indoor events with more than 4,000 attendees will be cancelled. From Monday, this will apply to all with more than 200 attendees.

Events with fewer than 200 people inside will still be allowed under the current criteria – that everyone needs to have a corona pass, be seated and wear a face mask.

Museums and cinemas would remain open, but with a capacity limit of 200 people per room.

The committee also decided that restaurants and bars can continue to remain open until 11PM, as it is currently the case – although experts had asked to close them at 8PM.

This new package of measures has already been criticised by representatives of the cultural sector, who argued that the restrictions do not target the source of the problem.

“Instead of fighting the virus, we are fighting culture. Bars open, but culture [events] only 200 people. Who are we fooling?,” said Michael De Cock, director of the Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg [Royal Flemish Theatre].

There is also no restrictions for private social life in the so-called “contact bubbles” – despite this also being recommended it by experts. Nevertheless, there is a recommendation to limit contacts as much as possible.

At work, there are no new measures, as the committee previously announced that teleworking is mandatory at least four days a week.

Intensive-care cases expected to peak next week

An average of 318 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised each day in Belgium this week – which represents an increase of four percent compared with the previous week.

There are currently 3,707 people hospitalised in the country, of which 821 are in intensive care.

“Although the number of infections is very high, the number of deaths in our country is lower than in comparable countries, and that is due to the high vaccination coverage,” said de Croo.

“Getting vaccinated is an act of solidarity,” he added.

More than 75 percent of the Belgian population is fully-vaccinated, and over a million people have received a booster shot.

For his part, Belgian virologist Steven Van Gucht said on Friday that the number of Covid-19 patients on the intensive care units of the country’s hospitals are expected to peak next week.

“It is unclear whether we can then expect a rapid fall or whether the figures will remain at that high level,” he also said, according to VRT news.

The highest number of new Covid-19 infections (25,574) during this fourth wave was recorded on Monday 22 November.

But new measures will make coronavirus figures fall more quickly, relieving the pressure on the health care sector, Van Gucht said.

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India’s ‘pencil village’ counts the cost of Covid school closures | Global development

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School closures in India during the pandemic have left their mark on more than the children who have seen delays to their learning. In one Kashmiri village the impact has been catastrophic on employment.

Pick up a pencil anywhere across India and it is likely to come from the poplar trees of Ukhoo.

This village, with an abundance of trees, about 10 miles south of Srinagar city in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, supplies more than 90% of the wood used by India’s pencil manufacturers, which export to more than 150 countries.

Before Covid, more than 2,500 people worked in the village’s 17 pencil factories and the industry supported about 250 families.

But, after nearly two years of school closures and a dramatic drop in demand for the village’s products, factory owners reduced their workforce by more than half.

Workers were dismissed without pay, while many of those who kept their jobs had migrated from other parts of India, and were cheaper to employ. Now the village and its workforce are waiting eagerly for the market to revive.

Rajesh Kumar, 26, from Bihar, has worked in Ukhoo for seven years. Like other migrant workers, he lives in a room on the factory premises and works 10- to 12-hour shifts. During lockdown last year, the factory owner provided food and accommodation when production shutdown for about three months. He is one of the luckier ones to be back working now.

“I hope the pencil demand increases and these factories are full of workers again, as many of our friends and people from our villages find work [here] and are able to make a living,” says Kumar.

Poplar logs outside a pencil slate factory, Ukhoo
Factory owners have had to lay off half of their workers during the pandemic. Photograph: Adil Abbas

Farooq Ahmed Wani, 27, from the city of Jammu, has worked as a machine operator in Ukhoo for the past five years.

“We are hoping that schools reopen throughout the country so that there is more demand for pencils in the market,” he says in an optimistic tone. “Then these factories can employ more young people and more migrants can also get some work here.”

Pencil wala Gaon, or “pencil village”, attracted the attention of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. In his monthly radio programme, Mann Ki Baat, last year he said the district was an example of how to reduce the country’s dependency on imports. “Once upon a time we used to import wood for pencils from abroad but now our Pulwama is making the country self-sufficient in the field of pencil making,” Modi said.

90% of the wood used in pencils manufactured in India comes from Ukhoo.
Ukhoo supplies 90% of the wood used in pencils manufactured in India. Photograph: Vincent Lecomte/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

A recent ministry of home affairs report said that the village would be developed as a “special zone” for manufacturing. “Now the whole country would be supplied finished pencils, manufactured completely in Pulwama,” the report noted. But the pandemic has shown how overreliance on one product in a region brings its own problems.

A migrant worker trims a plank of poplar wood at a pencil slate factory
A migrant worker trims timber at a pencil factory. The factories attract workers from several states. Photograph: Adil Abbas

Abrar Ahmed, a unit supervisor at one of Ukhoo’s factories, says everyone has suffered. “Even the sawdust from woodcutting machines is usually taken by the local villagers who then sell it to poultry farms and for other purposes in the village.”

Manzoor Ahmad Allaie owns one of the biggest factories in Ukhoo.

“We are only doing about 30% to 40% [of normal levels of] business now because of the Covid lockdown impact from last year, which means we produce about only 80 bags of pencil slats a day,” says Allaie. “Earlier we could produce about 300 pencil slat bags [a day] in the factory, which were transported out of Kashmir.”

He is eagerly looking forward to India’s schools fully reopening. It has been a hard two years for the pencil villagers, he says.

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