Posted on January 5, 2015

Analysis: Smugglers Turn to Bigger ‘Ghost’ Ships That Can Be Used All Year

Nick Squires, Telegraph, January 2, 2015

The interception of two merchant ships in the Adriatic crammed with refugees and bound for the coast of Italy appears to represent a radical change of strategy by people smugglers.

The two vessels were apparently set on auto-pilot, headed for southern Italy, and ran the risk of crashing into the coastline.

Only the prompt intervention of the Italian air force, navy and coast guard saved the ships from ramming into the coast.

More than 170,000 migrants and refugees have reached Italy in the past 14 months by sea, crossing the Mediterranean from the coast of North Africa.

The vast majority arrived in ramshackle former fishing boats or in large rubber dinghies, some of which capsized and sank, leading to the loss of more than 3,000 lives.

The small size of the craft meant that most attempted the crossing during the spring and summer months, when the weather was at its calmest.

But using much larger vessels such as the two intercepted this week–both of them believed to have come from Turkey–enables traffickers to operate throughout the winter.

They are robust enough to withstand storms and rough seas that might well sink smaller boats.

“We started seeing this type of cargo ship packed with refugees in the late autumn,” Ewa Moncure, from Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, which has ships and aircraft deployed in the Mediterranean, told The Telegraph.

“At first we wondered if it was a one-off, but it now seems to be a trend. The smugglers acquire a decommissioned cargo ship, recruit a crew, pack it with migrants and then abandon them at sea, telling them to call the rescue services. It’s a very dangerous new development, especially in bad weather.”

Buying an entire ship to fill with refugees may seem like a costly enterprise, but the financial rewards clearly outweigh the initial outlay.

The 970 refugees on board the Blue Sky M, which was intercepted by the Italian coast guard and safely brought to the port of Gallipoli in the southern region of Puglia on Wednesday, were reportedly charged on average of $6,000 each–a total of $6 million.

Even taking into account the expense of buying a second-hand, rust-bucket merchant vessel, there seems ample opportunity to make a profit.

The second ship to be detected in the Adriatic, the Ezadeen, is a former livestock carrier that was built 50 years ago.

It is not known what the traffickers paid to acquire it, but charging refugees, most of them Syrian, an average of $6,000 each is triple what migrants pay to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy or Malta.

The much higher price appears to reflect that while many of those leaving from North Africa are impoverished people from sub-Saharan Africa and Horn of Africa countries such as Eritrea, those on the boats coming from Turkey are relatively well-off, middle-class Syrians.

Among the migrants who disembarked from the Blue Sky M were Syrian engineers, pharmacists and other professionals.

“We don’t know where they are buying the boats,” said Ms Moncure of Frontex. “But we know they are flying in crew, sometimes from a long way away–one crewman came from Murmansk in Russia. It’s big business. The people in charge may be enticing crew members by saying that if they are arrested, they will only receive very light prison sentences.”

William Spindler, from the UNHCR, said Syrians were being driven to pay such high prices out of desperation as they flee the chaos caused by the civil war in their home country.

“We think there needs to be a crackdown on the criminal organisations that are prospering from this trafficking but at the same time we need to protect the victims, these refugees who are fleeing conflicts such as the one in Syria,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.

It was initially thought that the crew of the first “ghost ship”, the Blue Sky M, had abandoned the vessel, perhaps fleeing in smaller boats.

But it now appears that they remained on board and tried to hide among the refugees in the hope of not being detected.

“No one knew the captain or crew were, there was a mafia-like climate on board,” Muhammad, a 47-year-old Syrian engineer on board the ship, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. “We knew, though, that once we had disembarked, they tried to mix in amongst us.”

However, four were arrested by the Italian police after the merchant vessel docked at Gallipoli.

They had been allegedly planning the voyage since mid-December, with the Blue Sky M leaving the Turkish port of Mersin, not far from the Syrian border, just before Christmas.

The ship had reportedly been bought two weeks before by a Syrian businessman.

The four are being detained in a prison in the city of Lecce in Puglia.

The Italians are asking how the Turkish authorities could have allowed nearly 1,000 Syrians to board the vessel in one of their ports.

“Did the smugglers really act alone, or did they operate with the complicity of the Turks?” one newspaper, Il Fatto Quotidiano, asked.