Migrants and Mafia: Forced Migration and Organized Crime in Sicily

As debate on the European migrant crisis shifts from the voyage of migrants and their initial arrival in Europe to the long-term experiences of migrants in host countries, we must reexamine the issue of organized crime and forced migration. Much has been made of the role of criminal groups in the dangerous journey from a migrant’s home country to their ultimate destination, but I hope to expand conversation on the migrant experience and organized crime within their host country, using Sicily as a case study.

Existing literature on the interaction between organized crime and forced migration focuses predominantly on smuggling and human trafficking. According to Europol statistics, as much as 80% of all irregular migration from Africa to Europe is “facilitated” buy some sort of criminal enterprise.[1] If we look at specific countries, the effect of organized crime increases dramatically. For example, in 2005, of all irregular migrants settled in the Netherlands, some 97% of them arrived with assistance from professional smugglers.[2] As the UNODC explains, the position of being a migrant entering a sovereign territory without the “requisite permission” necessarily means that the migrant must engage in criminal activity and collaborate with criminal networks in order to enter and settle in a host country.[3]

However, the composition of these criminal enterprises is often heterogeneous and diffuse. 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” more suited to the ever-evolving realities that characterize forced migration.[4] These networks are comprised of small criminal groups who enter into arrangements for short periods of time before dissolving and reconfiguring themselves.[5] These groups are much more likely to have ties to the home country of the migrants they are smuggling than to the migrants’ ultimate destination. Because “smuggling requires a great deal of trust,” ethnic affiliations often determine the nature of the specific configurations of each smuggling network.[6] Some features of these networks include: the presence of a group coordinator who oversees and manages the minutiae of smuggling operations, a recruiter who initially establishes the connection between smugglers and migrants, a “passeur” who is in charge of the actual journey itself, and a diverse group of “freelancers” who fill various niche roles such as lookouts, drivers, and landowners.[7]

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.

In contrast to the attention paid by various international and national institutions to the involvement of organized crime in transporting and smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean, there is little official information on the interaction between organized crime and migrants once they enter the destination countries. From information gathered mostly via anecdotal evidence and news reports, it seems that the role of organized crime in the lives of forced migrants in host countries is much more centralized. 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.[8] It also has a notoriously fraught history of organized crime.

After the sudden influx of refugees, 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 has 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.[9] 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. . .,” claims one Sicilian senator.[10] 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 bare 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.[11] Because of stringent honor codes, the Costa Nostra typically does not deal directly in prostitution and drug dealing,[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.”[16]

Indirect forces in areas with mafia entrenchment also shape the experiences of forced migrants. After the Sicilian government’s relative success in fighting mafia-related corruption and violence, acres of land formerly owned by the Cosa Nostra have been confiscated by the state. In one instance, a Sicilian organization called Girasoli has employed migrants to harvest and produce wine on land confiscated from the Corleone family.[17] These migrant employees are hired directly from refugee camps and have an opportunity for steady income as they await the completion of their asylum applications. Yet Cosa Nostra influence remains present throughout all levels of Sicilian society and government and members of Girasoli admit that the mafia is actively seeking control over their former property.[18] Migrant workers on the land are understandably anxious, feelings exacerbated by acts of mafia provocation like sabotage of farm machinery and field arson.[19] These Girasoli farm workers are neither being directly exploited by the Cosa Nostra, nor are they working for them, yet they they still experience intimidation and uncertainty due to their ambiguous legal status.

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. He asserts that political and economic migrants are equally worthy of safety and security in their places of settlement. He claims that economic migrants are often the most vulnerable because they lack the right to official legal protection.[20] Mayor Orlando is leading the push to abolish the residence permit that verifies a migrant’s legal status within Italy. In his City of Palermo, migrants have the legal right to schooling, medical care, and work after living in the city for only two months.[21] The residence permit allows the mafia to more easily blackmail and threaten migrants, especially those without the time or resources to apply for one, and Orlando views the fight against the Cosa Nostra and the integration of migrants as two sides of the same coin.  “The mafia need the residence permit. They need illegality and prohibitions. They thrive on it,” he says.[22]

While there is a significant amount of information and research on crime and smuggling of migrants prior to arrival in their host country, there is very little information from NGOs, national/international organizations, or academia on the complex relationship between organized crime and migrants within host countries. Furthermore, literature on criminality and illegal immigration seems to be largely monopolized by those who focus on crime committed by immigrants as part of a concerted effort to demonize and criminalize migrants. The example of migrants in Sicily demonstrates the need for a more adequate analysis of the interaction between crime and forced migration. We need to view migrant involvement in, and abuse by, criminal organizations in host countries as another risk to which already vulnerable migrants are susceptible, on par with political persecution, economic vulnerability, and physical harm.


[1] UN Office of Drugs and Crime, “Organized Crime and Migration from Africa to Europe” 2006.

[2] UN Office of Drugs and Crime, “The Role of Organized Crime in the Smuggling of Migrants from West Africa to the European Union” 2011.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Luigi Achilli, “Irregular Migration to the EU and Human Smuggling in the Mediterranean. The Nexus Between Organized Crime and Irregular Migration.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bill Neely “Terrified Migrants Toil on Land Taken From The Mafia in Corleone, Sicily.”

[9] Rick Noack “For Rome’s Mafia, More Refugees Means More Money.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lorenzo Tondo “Mafia at a Crossroads as Nigerian Gangers Hit Sicily’s Shores.”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Eric Reguly“Sicily After Dark: Where the Refugee Crisis Meets the Mafia.”

[16] Lorenzo Tondo “Mafia at a Crossroads as Nigerian Gangers Hit Sicily’s Shores.”

[17] Bill Neely“Terrified Migrants Toil on Land Taken From the Mafia in Corleone, Sicily.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20]Renate van der Zee“He Fought the Mafia and Won. Now This Mayor is Taking on Europe Over Migrants.”

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Migrants and Mafia: Forced Migration and Organized Crime in Sicily

  1. Offering the legal right to work after being in the city for only two months may not necessarily deter mafia organisations ..it may get them out of the hands of one mafia organisation but the two month rule may drive them into the hands of another as they have to somehow manage to stay in the city and travel there ..thus opening a new smuggling route etc
    Is there any info about mafia involvement or nigerian gang involvement in the palermo option yet ?


  2. Pingback: Promises, promises: Immigration and food in the 2018 Italian election – Food Migration

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