Italy has intercepted two unmanned "ghost ships" off its coast carrying over 1,000 Syrian refugees. Critics of European immigration policies say Europe's inability to show a united front helps human traffickers get rich.
"We are alone, there is no one, help us!"
These were the words used by a Syrian woman in a distress call to the Italian coastguard on January 2, 2015. She, along with 358 other, mostly Syrian, migrants were then rescued by Italian authorities from the 50-year-old Sierra-Leone-registered livestock freight ship Ezadeen, which had been sailing on autopilot without a captain or crew. Among the passengers were pregnant women and eight unaccompanied children. They told authorities that they had boarded the ship in Turkey, where they arrived on a flight from neighboring Lebanon and that the captain and crew had worn hoods to avoid being identified before - presumably - jumping ship.
The Ezadeen was the second cargo ship without a captain to be intercepted within a week. The Italian navy rescued Blue Sky M on December 30 after a distress call had been sent out requesting help. That ship had been carrying 768 mostly Syrian refugees and waving a Moldovan flag. The refugees were brought to Gallipoli, in Italy's southeastern Puglia region.
Old story, new style
Like the Ezadeen, the Blue Sky M had also set off from Turkey and had at one point been set to autopilot as the crew abandoned the ship, authorities presume.
"This is what is new in this," Mathias Günther of the shipping company Hamburg Süd, told DW. "The migrants don't navigate the ships by themselves. Someone is there to set off with them. But usually, the migrants are the ones to leave the ship and the smugglers go back and load up more people and make another trip."
The practice of using "ghost ships" seems to have become a trend, according to Frontex press officer Ewa Moncure. She told DW that since August, "15 ships have already arrived in Italy using these methods."
She explained that the ships are often acquired legally, as they are decommissioned scrap ships sold off for cheap. They are then fixed up just so to allow them to make one last trip across sea. But they aren't safe. And, as Günther pointed out, the migrants tend to be in poor health; many of them sell kidneys or other organs in order to pay the price of $4,000 to $8,000 for a ticket.
Booming business for traffickers
People smugglers have started using these larger cargo ships for two reasons, Moncure explained. For one, they are bigger and can fit more people. "If you calculate that every migrant pays several thousands for a spot on the ship, that shows you what type of profit the smugglers are making."
The International Organization for Migration estimated a few days ago that people smugglers grossed over 1 million dollars (830,000 euros) on just one of last week's abandoned ships.
Not only that, "using large cargo ships allows the smugglers to cross the Mediterranean during winter," a time when less migrants tended to arrive in Europe. "Smaller boats simply wouldn't make it across sea."
But safe it is not. Regardless of the vessel, she explained, "whether small or big, rubber or fishing boat, they are always overcrowded. They are always stripped of all safety features that could possibly help the migrants if something goes wrong.
"Migrants are always in terrible danger in any type of ship."
Refugee crisis in Middle East
The shady, illegal business of people smuggling is booming off the back of conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Eritrea, among others, which have led to a dramatic increase in the number of refugees. A record number of 348,000 people attempted perilous sea crossings in 2014, according to figures released by the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, in mid-December. The majority of those migrants travelled to Europe, with more than 207,000 fleeing across the Mediterranean since the start of last January. (This is about three times the previous high of about 70,000 people attempting this journey during the Libyan civil war in 2011.) And of those people coming to Europe, Italy alone rescued 150,000 of them from sea in 2014.
"The refugee drama is a tragedy. And what you read in the news is only the tip of the iceberg. We estimate internally that between 400 and 500 refugees are rescued by cargo ships every day," Günther explained, adding that this had been going on for the past eight to ten months. "We have seen pictures from other shipping companies from when these boats capsize and all of a sudden you have 300 people in the water.
"And don't think for a minute that all of them can be saved."
EU policy of deterrence
The European Union's border security agency Frontex has stepped in to replace the Italian rescue mission Mare Nostrum, which the European Parliament voted to not adopt as a European project. So now, with the expiration of Italy's Mare Nostrum, Frontex' Operation Triton is assisting national coastal and border control agencies.
Karl Kopp, director of European affairs of Pro Asyl said it was deplorable that the EU did not decide to adopt Italy's Mare Nostrum on an EU level. According to Pro Asyl, Mare Nostrum was a search-and-rescue operation, while Triton's main purpose is protecting EU borders.
Most of the refugees fleeing from conflict in the Middle East to Europe end up being rescued by Italian authorities and going through the asylum process in Italy. But they travel to Italy not to stay there but because it is the gateway to the rest of Europe.
"That is exactly the problem," Kopp explained. "Considering the tragedies on our doorstep, it would be thinkable to have a common, proactive European solution."
He called it cynical: "European politicians all have a lot of warm words for the refugees, but in reality right now, they are simply waiting out the largest humanitarian refugee crisis since the Second World War."
Europe, with its policy of "turning itself into a fortress," as Kopp put it, is "completely failing with regard to this humanitarian crisis." At the same time, its policies are actually helping human trafficking rings make even more money, Kopp said.
When the ships arrive in European waters, they are not turned away. The migrants are rescued. .
"It's questionable whether the coastline can be made so secure that traffickers can no longer bring any people over. But in the end, policy makers will have to decide whether they want to hang an iron curtain across the Mediterranean, and let no one in, or if we open up to the refugees," Günther said.
"Because if we open up to refugees, then we could just as well bring them over in decent ships."