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The Real Migrant Crime Wave: Mafia Exploitation of Migrants in Sicily

The Cosa Nostra has not only found ways to benefit monetarily from migrants, but has also integrated migrants into mafia-related criminal enterprises in Sicily, writes Hayden Ford of the New School’s Graduate Program in International Affairs.

Written by Hayden Ford Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Would-be immigrants wait to disembark in the port of Catania, on the island of Sicily in March 2017. AFP/Giovanni ISOLINO

When it comes to crime and migration, governments and international institutions pay a lot of attention to the involvement of organized criminal organizations in transporting and smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean.

Even so, the evidence suggests that there are no centralized crime syndicates operating across the major smuggling routes in the Mediterranean. Rather, smuggling takes place through “flexible and adaptive networks” comprised of small criminal groups who enter into arrangements for short periods of time before dissolving and reconfiguring themselves.

By contrast, there is little official information on the interaction between organized crime and migrants once they arrive at destination countries, even though it seems that the role of organized crime is much more centralized at that stage.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the experiences of migrants in Sicily and southern Italy. It is a region heavily affected by the migrant crisis; in 2015 and 2016 a total of 400,000 migrants landed in Sicily, an island with a population of just 5 million. It also has a notoriously fraught history of organized crime.

The Sicilian mafia, the Cosa Nostra, seized the opportunity to enrich themselves and further entrench their influence. With the establishment of refugee camps throughout the island and mainland, the Cosa Nostra bribed officials and secured contracts to manage the accommodation of refugees. This allows them to profit from government subsidies which amount to around $37.50 per immigrant per day, a rapidly growing multi-million dollar business. This creates a perverse incentive that works against encamped refugees: “The interest is to open as many [camps] as possible and keep the migrants there. The longer they keep them, the more money they bring in,” one Sicilian senator told the Washington Post.

Similarly, the Cosa Nostra has bribed and coerced officials in Catania, Sicily’s second largest city, to offer tenders to mafia-run companies. These companies provide goods and services to refugee camps at much cheaper rates than the legitimate services for which the government has budgeted. As the mafia pockets the difference between the government funds and the cheaper mafia-affiliated services that are actually utilized, refugees and migrants bear the brunt of the corruption.

The Cosa Nostra has not only found ways to benefit monetarily from the migrants, it has also integrated migrants into mafia-related criminal enterprises in Sicily. This exposes migrants to vulnerability on two fronts: from the mafia and from local authorities. In order to pay for their trans-Mediterranean journeys, young women are often forced into prostitution. Because of stringent honor codes, the Costa Nostra typically does not deal directly in prostitution and drug dealing, yet the mafia has found a convenient loophole to these moral codes by exploiting migrants, especially Nigerians. Vulnerable migrants allow the Cosa Nostra to involve themselves in activities that their inflexible codes of honor would otherwise forbid.

Throughout Sicily, networks of Nigerians, often with gang affiliations in their country of origin, act as low-level criminals, with permission from the Cosa Nostra. The criminal operations of Nigerian migrants are subordinate to the mafia, which offers them protection and resources for drug dealing and prostitution. In return, the groups must pay a pizzo, the mafia tax. In order to reinforce their subordinate status of these networks, the Cosa Nostra bans them from carrying firearms and limits them to knives and machetes.

Many Nigerians who become involved in crime do so after leaving refugee camps before their legal status is determined, which offers them little opportunity for legitimate employment. Not only does this place the criminals themselves in a precarious position – outcasts from their host country, subordinate to a ruthless Cosa Nostra, and under perpetual scrutiny from law enforcement – it also places other Nigerian migrants, the vast majority of which are not engaged in any criminal activity, at risk as well.

As most Nigerian migrants do not have official legal status, those subject to violence from gangs have little legal recourse. As activist Osas Egbon explains, “[Nigerians] are victims on two fronts. They are victims of both Sicilian and Nigerian criminality.”

Even migrants not directly exploited by the Cosa Nostra experience intimidation and uncertainty in areas with mafia entrenchment. For example, a Sicilian organization called Girasoli employed asylum seekers to harvest and produce wine on land confiscated from the Corleone family, giving them steady income as they await the completion of their asylum applications.

Both the government and members of Girasoli admit that the mafia is actively seeking control over their former property. Migrant workers on the land are understandably anxious, feelings that are exacerbated by acts of mafia provocation like sabotage of farm machinery and field arson.

There have been some efforts to address the precarious position of refugees in Sicily. The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, who has made a career of pushing back against Cosa Nostra influence, is now a powerful force in advocating for migrants in his city.

Mayor Orlando is pushing to abolish mandatory residence permits for migrants in Palermo. He says the residence permits allow the mafia to more easily blackmail and threaten migrants who do not have the time or resources to apply for one. In Orlando’s view, the fight against the Cosa Nostra and the integration of migrants are two sides of the same coin. “The mafia need the residence permit. They need illegality and prohibitions. They thrive on it,” he says.

There is a lot of information about crime and smuggling. And research on crime and immigration seems to be largely monopolized by those who focus on crimes committed by immigrants as part of a concerted effort to demonize migrant communities.

What we need is a better understanding of the complex relationship between organized crime and migrants once they arrive in places like Sicily, and their vulnerability to recruitment and abuse by European mafia.

A version of this article was originally published on the Forced Migration Forum.

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