9 January 2015

On 31 December 2014, the Italian authorities rescued 736 Syrian refugees, including 60 children, who were travelling on the Moldovan-flagged cargo ship Blue Sky M. The ship had sailed from Turkey and was, according to media reports, abandoned by the crew and left on autopilot on a collision course with the Italian coast. A few days later, on 2 January 2015, the Ezadeen, a Sierra Leonean-flagged cargo ship, carrying 359 Syrian refugees and also abandoned by its crew, was adrift 25 miles off south-east Italy and was then towed to southern Italy by an Icelandic vessel part of the Frontex Triton mission. Italian authorities are investigating reports that the smugglers abandoned the ship after locking it on automatic pilot.

UNHCR, IOM and Frontex have expressed their concern about this new ‘ghost ship’ strategy.  These cases show that smugglers are now using old, unsafe and quite large cargo ships which, according to survivors’ accounts, are then abandoned by their crews. The ships set sail from Mersin in Turkey, which according to Frontex, is a “departure point still connected by ferry to the Syrian port of Latakia, making it reachable for the tens of thousands of Syrians still fleeing the conflict in their country.” According to Frontex, the engines of the old ships are often unreliable and the danger of the journey is increased by the smugglers switching off the ship’s Automatic Identification System to make the boat electronically invisible to the search and rescue authorities in order to buy time for the crew to escape and avoid arrest.

According to Frontex, a place on such a freighter from Turkey costs at least three times the price of a ticket on the usual sea route from Libya. The survivors of the Blue Sky M told IOM staff that they paid between USD 4,000 and 6,000 to travel from Turkey to Italy. “Travelling this way not only circumvents the considerable danger of capsizing in a small boat in rough seas: it also avoids having to go to Libya. The departure point of choice for facilitator networks in 2014, this increasingly lawless North African nation appears to have become too dangerous an operating environment even for the criminal gangs. Libya’s neighbours, furthermore, have beefed up their border security to contain the spread of Islamic extremists, which has made it much harder for migrants trying to enter by land”, Frontex notes.

Vincent Cochetel, Director of UNHCR Europe Bureau, stated: “the use of larger cargo ships is a new trend, but it is part of an ongoing and worrying situation that can no longer be ignored by European governments. We need urgent European concerted action in the Mediterranean Sea, increasing efforts to rescue people at sea and stepping up efforts to provide legal alternatives to dangerous voyages. Without safer ways for refugees to find safety in Europe, we won’t be able to reduce the multiple risks and dangers posed by these movements at sea.”

According to Frontex, approximately 11,400 people have been rescued in 77 separate search and rescue operations since the launch of the Triton Operation, on 1 November 2014. The EU Border Agency has warned that Operation Triton, with  two aircrafts, a helicopter, two open sea patrol vessels, and four coastal vessels at its disposal  “cannot be expected to handle the migrant challenge alone”. According to Frontex, Triton operation has “a fleet appropriate to its mandate, which is to control the EU’s borders, not to police 2.5million square kilometres of the Mediterranean. Triton’s budget, at €2.9m a month, is one third of what Italy were spending on Operation Mare Nostrum. That said, saving lives is always a priority for Frontex.”


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 This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 9 January 2015. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.