Rescue of latest migrant ‘ghost ship’ points to change in strategy
ROME — The Italian coast guard rescued a second “ghost ship” adrift in the Adriatic Friday as experts warned that people traffickers had adopted a dangerous new tactic to smuggle migrants into Europe.
Six coast guard officers were lowered from a helicopter in stormy weather onto the deck of the Ezadeen after the merchant ship was supposedly abandoned by its crew.
The 72-metre vessel, originally designed to carry livestock, was packed with about 450 refugees. The ship was flying the flag of Sierra Leone, but registered to a Lebanese company, when it was discovered about 40 kilometres off the Italian coast.
Those on board are believed to be Syrians and the Ezadeen is thought to have begun its voyage in the Syrian port of Tartus.
There were dozens of women on board and about 60 children, who were “visibly distressed but overall in good medical condition,” Italian authorities said.
The alarm was raised when one refugee broadcast a message over the ship’s radio saying: “We are alone, there is no one — help us.”
The coast guard officers took control of the vessel and steered it toward a port in the southern region of Calabria.
The discovery of the ship was similar to the interception on Wednesday of another abandoned vessel, the Moldovanregistered Blue Sky M, which had no crew but nearly 1,000 refugees on board.
It had been set on autopilot and was at risk of running aground before Italian coast guards took control, delivering it to Gallipoli.
After years of sending tens of thousands of migrants toward Italy and Malta in fishing boats and rubber dinghies, traffickers have hit on a new and even more cynical way of dispatching their human cargo toward Europe, experts said.
“We started to see the arrival of this type of cargo ship packed with refugees in the late autumn and since then there have been about 10 of them,” said Ewa Moncure, from Frontex, the EU’s border control agency.
“At first we wondered if it was a one-off, but it now seems to be a trend. The smugglers typically acquire a decommissioned cargo ship, pack it with migrants and then abandon their passengers at sea, telling them to call the rescue services. In the case of the Blue Sky M, some refugees claimed that the crew chose to mingle with the migrants rather than abandon the ship.”
Vincent Cochetel, the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Europe, said: “The use of larger cargo ships is a new trend. It is part of an ongoing and worrying situation that can no longer be ignored by European governments.”
More than 170,000 migrants and refugees have reached Italy in the past 14 months by crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.
They generally travel in the spring, summer and early autumn to take advantage of calmer weather. However, using larger vessels, such as the two intercepted this week, lets traffickers operate in the winter.
Buying an entire ship to fill with refugees may seem costly, but the rewards clearly outweigh the expense.
The 970 refugees on board the Blue Sky M were charged about $7,200 each. The passage from Turkey cost roughly triple what migrants usually pay to cross from North Africa to Italy.