A richer route in mi­grant smug­gling

Smug­glers cap­i­tal­ize on those with fi­nan­cial means to of­fer pas­sage to Europe on yachts, sail­boats from Turkey


AVOLA, SI­CILY — It was a far cry from the rot­ting fish­ing boats and over­stuffed dinghies that carry so many thou­sands of mi­grants pre­car­i­ously to Ital­ian shores.

The fam­ily of six had paid about $96,000 (all fig­ures US) to travel from Afghanistan to Turkey. The last leg of their jour­ney, a cramped week’s sail through the Aegean and Mediter­ranean seas aboard a cerulean 50-foot yacht, the Polina, pi­loted by three Ukrainian skip­pers, cost $7,000 a head. It dropped them in Si­cily in rel­a­tive style.

As mi­grants go, this was lux­ury class.

It was not the first time that Carlo Parini, the po­lice chief in­spec­tor against il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion in the south­west­ern port city of Syra­cuse, who met the fam­ily in April and re­counted their story, had seen such a thing.

Since the be­gin­ning of the year, the Si­cil­ian au­thor­i­ties have reg­is­tered 125 mi­grants who have ar­rived on yachts and sail­boats, mostly pi­loted by Ukrainian skip­pers, a lu­cra­tive and grow­ing trend.

“It is likely that the or­ga­ni­za­tion is made up of Turks who use pro­fes­sional Ukrainian skip­pers, tra­di­tion­ally skilled, for the cross­ing,” said Francesco Paolo Gior­dano, the chief pros­e­cu­tor in Syra­cuse, who is in charge of the in­ves­ti­ga­tions. “But it is still too early to say.”

Since the Euro­pean Union cut a deal with Ankara in 2016, the num­bers of refugees and mi­grants leav­ing Turkey in flimsy in­flat­able boats for the short pas­sage to Greece have dropped sharply. But the crack­down by the Turk­ish au­thor­i­ties has ap­par­ently not dis­cour­aged a widen­ing net­work of hard­pressed but ac­com­plished Ukrainian yachts­men who ply the nar­row Bosporus and are will­ing to smug­gle Afghans, Iraqis, Syr­i­ans and oth­ers with the means and money. Cap­tured boats have even in­cluded tro­phies and sail­ing medals.

The num­ber of mi­grants in this elite cat­e­gory is a drop in the bucket com­pared with the 181,000 mostly sub-Sa­ha­ran Africans who risked the treach­er­ous cross­ing from Libya and Egypt to Si­cily last year, dy­ing by the hun­dreds nearly ev­ery week.

None­the­less, the richer route from Turk­ish shores to south­ern Italy — oc­ca­sion­ally on el­e­gant wooden and fi­bre­glass sail­ing ves­sels — is boom­ing, Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties say.

Parini has watched the num­bers of yachts en­gaged in the mi­grant trade grow steadily in his 10 years as head of an in­ter­force group fight­ing il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.

“Last Novem­ber, we ar­rested a Ukrainian skip­per for the sec­ond time and I rec­og­nized him,” Parini said. “Can you imag­ine what kind of busi­ness this is be­com­ing if skip­pers do it rou­tinely?”

One of the first lux­ury smug­gling ves­sels Parini could re­call ar­rived in Septem­ber 2010, a grace­ful 36-foot Ger­man-de­signed sail­boat that landed on a beach near Syra­cuse, car­ry­ing Afghans and with three Turk­ish skip­pers at the helm.

In 2015, 111 mi­grants cruised to Si­cil­ian shores aboard sail­boats, and in 2016, 710 did.

But last year the route started gain­ing steam. Much in­ter­na­tional po­lice work re­mains to be done to catch up with the smug­glers, Ital­ian of­fi­cials said.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors have so far found that smug­glers mostly rent their boats from char­ter agen­cies in Turkey and leave from the ports of Cesme or Izmir at dawn.

The Ukrainian skip­pers the smug­glers rely on are renowned for their skills, yet they have be­come in­creas­ingly des­per­ate in their home coun­try, which has it­self been torn by war since 2014. To avoid rou­tine checks, the sailors skil­fully nav­i­gate what is known as the “con­tigu­ous zone,” the con­tin­u­ous mar­itime area ex­tend­ing be­yond any coun­try’s ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters. Of­ten the sailors have on hand sev­eral na­tional flags — some fake, some not — that they can hoist ac­cord­ing to the coun­try they are ap­proach­ing.

Typ­i­cally, they at least have a Turk­ish, a Greek and an Amer­i­can flag, as many ves­sels are reg­is­tered in Delaware, where “20 clicks and a credit card al­low you to reg­is­ter a boat from any­where,” said Mario Car­nazza, a coast guard of­fi­cial on Parini’s team.

Car­nazza re­cently showed a stylish, beige, 36-foot yacht sit­ting in the dock in Au­gusta, a large Si­cil­ian port town where many of the mi­grants res­cued by Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties and non-prof­its end up.

In mid-March, the boat — called Maco — with its car­bon fi­bre mast, ny­lon sails and pris­tine ten­der worth at least 3,000 eu­ros (about $3,400) — was in­ter­cepted 110 kilo­me­tres off the Ital­ian coast af­ter smug­gling 21 peo­ple across the Mediter­ranean Sea.

Aboard, the po­lice found four medals and first-place tro­phies from Turk­ish sail­ing com­pe­ti­tions, as well as Turk­ish pi­lot books, nau­ti­cal maps and var­i­ous stick­ers to change the name of the ves­sel.

For now, the skip­pers are the weak link in the chain. When caught, they have been charged with aid­ing and abet­ting il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, a crime that in Italy car­ries at least four years in prison. The court in Syra­cuse is cur­rently try­ing 21 skip­pers.

Many have de­fended them­selves by ar­gu­ing that they were forced to pi­lot the boats out of eco­nomic ne­ces­sity or by Turk­ish crim­i­nals who threat­ened their fam­i­lies back in Ukraine.

Some are able to bar­gain their sen­tences down to a few months, while oth­ers are al­lowed to leave prison early for good con­duct. For some, it is a price worth pay­ing in an ex­tremely lu­cra­tive trade.

Parini’s three-man team in Syra­cuse finds it­self in­creas­ingly over­whelmed, work­ing out of a nar­row of­fice crammed with files that chron­i­cle the central Mediter­ranean’s re­cent his­tory of crime and de­spair. The cases pile up.

Three floors be­low their of­fice, a trial ended on a re­cent day with judges af­firm­ing the pros­e­cu­tor’s case that two Ukrainian en­gi­neers in their 30s ranked high in the crim­i­nal ring, even if they had de­nied be­ing pro­fes­sional skip­pers.

“Those two got four years and six months,” Car­nazza said.

Mar­ilena Barone, a lo­cal lawyer who de­fended the men as well as five oth­ers over the past year and a half, said that her clients were try­ing to es­cape Ukraine. Af­ter look­ing for work in Turkey, they were taught how to sail and forced to un­der­take the voy­age, she said.

“Through the en­tire trial, they have been very at­ten­tive and very se­ri­ous,” Barone said. “They said that their nau­ti­cal li­cence is fake, so we will surely appeal.”

Yet in July 2015, they were caught af­ter sail­ing across the Mediter­ranean with 74 mi­grants, mostly from Iraq, and run­ning aground on a sand­bar near Capone­gro, a quiet beach north of here.

It was the same place that the Afghan fam­ily of six had landed.

Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties say the vast ma­jor­ity of refugees and mi­grants travel in flimsy, over­loaded boats. Here, pas­sen­gers call for help af­ter their boat cap­sized off the coast on May 24.


Above: A hand­book of Mediter­ranean ports found on an in­ter­cepted boat. Right: A Turk­ish flag found on a boat. Au­thor­i­ties say there is a net­work of boats, mostly rented by smug­glers from char­ter agen­cies in Turkey, with trained skip­pers on board that smug­gles Afghans, Iraqis, Syr­i­ans and oth­ers with the fi­nan­cial means to Europe. Smug­glers of­ten have on hand sev­eral na­tional flags — some fake, some not — they can hoist ac­cord­ing to the coun­try they are ap­proach­ing so as to avoid rou­tine checks.




Top: A yacht in­ter­cepted in April car­ry­ing 21 mi­grants and now docked in Si­cily. Above: Gold medals from Turk­ish sail­ing com­pe­ti­tions, found aboard the yacht.

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