Sea Change: New Tactics in Human Smuggling

You can make a lot of money smuggling people across the Mediterranean.

Until recently, smugglers took the winter off due to weather conditions. Not anymore. Smuggling is now open for business year round. Rubber dinghies can’t handle the rough winter seas, so smugglers buy larger boats destined for the scrap heap, gas them up, throw in some Syrians and point them at Italy. The crewless migrant-filled boats are called ‘ghost ships,’ a spooky name for boats long in the tooth and short on supplies.

Ever aware of the market, the smugglers have moved their operations closer to the source. Nowadays, Syrians don’t have to go all the way to Libya; smugglers have set up shop in south-eastern Turkey, just 240 kilometres from Aleppo. At €6,000 a pop, Syrians can pay much more than African migrants. A fully-loaded clunker, bought for peanuts, can net over €5 million. Profits are so high that crews use them like Kleenex: once, then throw it away. Thanks to border tightening in Lebanon and the continuing civil war, smugglers can rely on steady streams of Syrian customers.

Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Though the larger boats can handle rough weather better than dinghies, they present a problem for rescuers, many civilian. By deploying the ghost ships into the paths of merchant ships, smugglers can almost guarantee their customers a rescue: 30% of migrants in September and October got picked up by civilian vessels. High waves make disembarking at sea dangerous. Civilian crews may follow international maritime law, but they may not be trained to help people who are sick, injured or giving birth. An unmanned, 300-tonne, 75-metre ship barrelling down the coast is a terrifying sight. With no crew to pilot the ship, rescuers often have to wait until the vessels run out of fuel before approaching them.

Operation Triton isn’t enough. With a fleet of just six boats and three aircraft, it can’t possibly do the job that it inherited from Mare Nostrum as well as patrol 2.5 million square miles of open sea.

MOAS hopes to continue its mission in 2015. Once the funding goals are reached, migrant rescue missions will recommence, with an eye toward improved duty of care, post-rescue and counselling. More funding means more lives saved. Nobody deserves to die at sea.