Conflict and Fragility


Organised crime and migration in Sicily

04 Mar 2018 - 13:13
Source: Porta di Lampedusa monument for migrants - Vito Manzari/flickr
Unpacking the spiral of vulnerability

This Commentary is part of a series of three on Italy's role in the ongoing migration crisis. Also read The Italian military deployment and On the shores of safety: migration management in Sicily

On March 4, over 50 million Italian voters will go to the polls to elect the deputies and senators of the 18th legislature of the Republic. With last-minute rallies being held throughout the country, migration is at the very heart of the debate. Fomented by fear and negative perceptions rather than facts, in the past months the conversation has assumed an anti-establishment, anti-migration, Eurosceptic tone. There is virtually no talk about the fact that arrivals by sea in 2018 diminished by over 60% when compared to the same period in 2017. And there is even less talk about the vulnerability and protection needs of people who reach the shores of Italy by crossing the Mediterranean. But state failure to protect migrants and refugees and to process their status swiftly is becoming increasingly problematic, as these vulnerable groups can easily fall through the cracks of the formal system right into the arms of organised crime. Developments over the past few years have shown this to contribute to the proliferation and fragmentation of organised crime in Italy.

Continuous crisis management

Three years after what has become known as the ‘migration crisis’, the reception and management of migrants and refugees in Italy still amounts to a crisis response. Since 2015 onwards no major changes were proposed to alleviate the situation of migrants, but instead Italy supported securitised approaches in transit countries to prevent migrants from continuing their northbound journeys. The Chamber of Deputies adopted more ‘emergency measures’ that came to be known as the ‘Minniti-Orlandi decree. The Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees that should accommodate populations of concern, support their legal procedures and guarantee their well-being, hosts only about 30,000 people. On the contrary, Emergency Reception Centres, supposedly used for initial reception only, are accommodating over 150,000 people. A recent report by Doctors without Borders shows how this shortage of adequate reception facilities is often accompanied by a host of other issues that increase people’s vulnerability. Social marginalisation, forced evictions, reduced access to healthcare, and physical violence aggravate the precarious circumstances of men, women and children who are awaiting a status determination.

The situation is particularly dire for victims of human trafficking and unaccompanied minors, that amount to 14% of the arrivals in 2018. Mandatory medical examinations, age and vulnerability assessments, and repeated personal interviews are often very traumatic experiences for people who have already been exposed to violence en route to Italy. As dedicated protection facilities for these groups are at full capacity, they are often allocated to regular reception facilities unable to provide the type of assistance required by vulnerable groups. According to a humanitarian worker interviewed by the authors in February 2018, "for victims of trafficking this commomnly means being (re)drawn into prostitution circles, even if the victim has already self-identified, self-referred and requested help".

State failure to address the protection needs of those who arrive in Italy and to process their status is swiftly becoming increasingly problematic. On the one hand, the lack of dedicated protection often allows for vulnerable people to fall through the cracks of the formal system right into the arms of organised crime groups. On the other hand, state policies targeting organised crime that exploits migrants and refugees focus primarily on arresting individuals and not addressing the vulnarebility of people and its causes. By adopting this tunnel vision, Italy overlooks the greater need for protection of those being abused by criminal groups, creating a vicious cycle of vulnerability, exploitation and crime.

Proliferation of organised crime

Among various industries that profit from the vulnerability of migrants, the Sicilian mafia group Cosa Nostra plays a prominent role. The group saw a lucrative business opportunity in the establishment of reception centers throughout the island and seized this development to further fortify their influence and gain economic benefits. The reception centers are generally entrusted to local cooperatives that in turn subcontract supplies to companies infiltrated by the mafia. So, on the one hand, mafia profits from state subsidies by securing contracts to manage the accommodation of migrants and refugees. On the other hand, they take advantage of the presence of migrants to either employ them for underpaid labour or illegal activities such as prostitution.

In addition to well-established local criminal groups, the past years have seen the expansion of the Nigerian Black Axe, a criminal network born in the late 1970s in Benin City as a university fraternity. Over the years, the organisation became a full-fledged mafia association that profits from drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion and other illicit activities. In Palermo, the home turf of Cosa Nostra, the Black Axe established itself in the historic district of Ballarò, one of the oldest markets in the Sicilian capital in the early 2000s as Nigerian migrants reached the shores of Sicily. Ballarò's history as a crossroads of local mafias’ trade and criminality, where street vendors, smugglers of cigarettes and drug dealers make a profit along each other, goes a long way back. The market functions as the headquarters of mafia groups as it is strategically located in the neighbourhood of Porta Nuova, known as the stronghold for organised crime syndicates' main activities including protection racketeering (pizzo) and the organisation and management of illegal financial transactions and traffics.

Under the leadership of Festus Pedro Ehronmosele, arrested in Padua in 2016, Black Axe reached an agreement with Cosa Nostra and partitioned the area of Ballarò to avoid unnecessary and possibly violent competition. Black Axe affiliates are involved in the same business as their Italian colleagues including prostitution, drug trafficking and extortion. But while Cosa Nostra has historically reigned on the island through fear, the Black Axe is still relatively new and in need of expanding its network. By capitalising on the vulnerability of migrants who reside on the island either awaiting a status determination or because they have received a rejection notification of their asylum demand, the Black Axe is continuously growing. This development is also enabled by the state’s failure to set up adequate reception facilities and to protect migrants and refugees, which plays directly into the hands of organised criminal groups.  

The vulnerability of migrants and refugees combined with the state’s inability to fulfil their protection needs makes them an easy prey for organised crime. Nigerian migrants are already approached by members of the organisation in the reception facilities, where they are invited to join the organisation in exchange for economic benefits. Refusing to join the organisation is not an option. The initiation ritual consists of the beating of the candidate member, the ignorant, a practice even more cruel if one thinks that the membership is not voluntary, but rather imposed. If individuals oppose to be co-opted in the criminal group, they spend the night under unbearable torture. Women are generally not offered membership in the group. Instead, they are forced into prostitution rings that the Black Axe manages in Sicily. Often, young girls are convinced to leave Nigeria with the promise of a job awaiting for them in Italy. Once arrived in Sicily, either by boat or by flights purchased with credit cards by the Axe, the girls are inserted in the prostitution industry where they have to work until they pay back their outstanding debt. Investigative judges in cities throughout Italy, including Brescia, Napoli, Turin and Verona, have uncovered similar practices.

A dissonant response

The recent developments on the island show that more of the same is to be expected in the near future. According to the Palermo police, the arrest of Black Axe leader Ehronmosele in 2016 created an opportunity for another Nigerian gang to step in and capture the business opportunities provided by the migration industry. The police fear that the highly fluid structure of the new Nigerian criminal gang, The Vikings, will make it harder to identify figureheads and halt their illegal operations. There is likewise a concern that the fragmentation of the Black Axe will put in danger the ‘coexistence agreement’ between Italian and Nigerian criminal groups, leading to more violence. In any case, the focus of current investigations is of a criminal nature looking to prosecute as many individuals linked to the Black Axe and less to protect the victims of sexual and labour of exploitation, including asylum seekers.

Indeed, confronting criminals is imperative, and so should be protecting vulnerable migrants and refugees. Addressing the primary needs of vulnerable people is part of a greater asylum reform and migration management that Italy should undertake. At a bare minimum, Italy should restore the full rights of migrants and refugees, and continue criminalising trafficking and exploitation while simultaneously ensuring the protection of migrants’ rights. In addition, and given that most Black Axe prosecutions focus on the "mafia-like" character of the organisation, responses only amount to anti-crime measures. During trials, the methods and modalities of the Nigerian group are given a primary role, while the vulnerability of their victims always remains a second concern. As it does during the electoral debate that is about to come to a conclusion.