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‘Ghost ships’ a worrying development

5 January 20150 comments
‘Ghost ships’ a worrying development

Photo: AFP Photo/Alfonso Di Vincenzo

They are called ‘ghost ships’ and they are a worrying new trend which sees human traffickers exploit desperate refugees by ferrying them across the Mediterranean in large ships and then abandoning them.

The smugglers leave the ships drifting in the expectation that European coastguard agencies will take them to shore.

The UNHCR says the dangerous practice has been happening for months but only came to global attention recently with two incidents that received extensive media coverage.

A ‘ghost ship’ The Ezadeen carrying hundreds of Syrian refugees including pregnant women and children was towed safely to Italy after being abandoned by its crew.

It was the second cargo ship within days to be left on course to crash into the Italian coast, a stark example of the new and increasingly ruthless strategies of the people traffickers.

Italy’s coastguard said the ship arrived at the port of Corigliano Calabro, where passengers were met by medical staff from the Red Cross.

Commander Francesco Perrotti told BBC News that all the migrants on board were from Syria and said they were being taken by bus to other parts of Italy.

The 360 passengers were in relatively good physical condition after their three-day ordeal, he said.

The rescue of the Ezadeen follows a similar operation to save almost 800 migrants aboard another abandoned ship, the Blue Sky M.

Sailing under the flag of Sierra Leone, it had lost power in rough seas off the south-east coast of Italy after being set on auto-pilot on its way from Turkey.

One of the migrants raised the alarm using a radio on board, telling coastguards: “We’re without crew, we’re heading toward the Italian coast and we have no-one to steer.”

The Ezadeen is registered as a livestock vessel but cattle would not be left to cross high seas in the winter with no crew.

UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said: “We are seeing this new trend. It’s apparent there have been other such incidents – maybe four or five in the past two months”.

“But only when the Blue Sky M incident occurred this week, which involved nearly 1,000 people, did it capture everyone’s attention.”

Mr Spindler said it showed that human traffickers were changing tactics. “They’re using bigger boats and different routes to smuggle people.

“In the past they have come from Libya in dinghies and boats, but that route seems to have been closed by Frontex [the EU’s border agency].”

Admiral Giovanni Pettorino of the Italian Coast Guard said that by charging hundreds of desperate refugees thousands of dollars at a time, gangs in North Africa and the Middle East were still able to make big profits by writing off ageing ships in the process of smuggling human beings.

Last month the UNHCR described the Mediterranean crossing from the Middle East and Africa to Europe as “the most lethal route in the world” after a record 3,419 migrants lost their lives in 2014 crossing the sea.

Police in Italy believe traffickers made some $US3m from 359 illegal migrants found abandoned on The Ezadeen.

Both ships reportedly started in Turkey, in a change from the Libyan route usually favoured by gangs.

Illegal migration to the EU has been fuelled by the civil war in Syria, which has driven people to seek asylum in Europe, along with economic migrants.

Last year it is estimated that nearly 3,500 refugees died trying to cross the Mediterranean while another 200,000 were rescued.

Helen Matovu-Reed
AMES Staff Writer