Commission steps up response to ‘ghost ships’

The Blue Sky M cargo ship docked at the Gallipoli harbour in southern Italy on 31 Dec. [Reuters]

The Blue Sky M cargo ship docked at the Gallipoli harbour in southern Italy on 31 Dec. [Reuters]

Human traffickers have started to smuggle migrants to Europe on big ships, a challenge the European Commission was quizzed over its response to today (5 January).

The Ezadeen, a Sierra-Leone-flagged cargo ship, was abandoned by its crew with 359 Syrian refugees on board. It was towed ashore in Italy on 3 January in the second such rescue this week, prompting calls for stronger European Union action in the face of new tactics by human traffickers.

On 31 December, about 800 mostly Syrian migrants were rescued from another “ghost ship”, the Moldovan Blue Sky M. It too was abandoned at sea, highlighting a new ploy by traffickers who make money by promising to take refugees to Europe.

Civil war in Syria swelled the number of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean last year, with some 160,000 seaborne migrants arriving in Italy as of the end of November. Thousands of others drowned.

Change of tactics

Most used to cross in small boats. But in recent months smugglers have increasingly used cargo ships to ferry large groups from ports in Turkey or Egypt, according to Italian and United Nations officials. Smugglers usually abandon the ships close to Italy’s coasts.

Italy recently phased out its expensive Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) search-and-rescue operation on the Mediterranean. It was replaced by a smaller EU joint mission called Triton, but Italian politicians and UN officials say further efforts are needed.

>> Read: EU’s Operation Triton to help Italy cope with migrants

On 2 January, Dimitris Avramopoulos, Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, published a statement in which he highlighted the need to take more decisive action against the “ruthless criminal organisations” which now employ new methods “in order to exploit desperate people who are trying to escape conflict and war”.

According to some press reports, sub-standard cargo ships are bought by traffickers for sums of around €250,000. With 500 migrants paying about €5,000, the profit of one such journey is almost tenfold.

The Commission was pressed with questions about how is it possible that the ‘ghost ships’ leave from ports in Turkey. Turkey is a far cry from being a failed state and which aims at having stronger ties with the EU.

Also, it is unclear how the traffickers buy and operate the sub-standard ships in spite of existing maritime safety legislation.

Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said that Avramopoulos would present in the course of the current year a new agenda for migration. It would answer new challenges such as the ghost ships.

Margaritis Schinas, spokesman of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, said that the new type of human trafficking activity was “particularly worrying”.

“Europe is doing what we can, there is a scope of doing more, but this requires more money, more means”, he said.

The spokespeople acknowledged that the budget of the European agency for the management of external borders Frontex is not sufficient. They also repeated that Frontex was not guarding the EU’s borders, but was putting at the disposal of member states additional means and resources to help them guard their own borders.

The Commission didn’t explain if Frontex action, which usually take place in coastal waters, could begin at deep sea, before the ghost ships reach close to EU territory.

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