Human traffickers offer a trip for €5,500

Wealthier migrants targeted in Syria on social media

The Blue Sky M cargo ship which carried hundreds of migrants to Italy
The Blue Sky M cargo ship which carried hundreds of migrants to Italy
The ‘luxury’ boats offered by the human traffickers. One of the Facebook postings referring to a journey from Turkey to Italy, says “Price for adults to $4250; From 10 years to 14 years to $2125; Under 10 years free,” and “Good food; water; delivery to Italy.”
The ‘luxury’ boats offered by the human traffickers. One of the Facebook postings referring to a journey from Turkey to Italy, says “Price for adults to $4250; From 10 years to 14 years to $2125; Under 10 years free,” and “Good food; water; delivery to Italy.”

They offer their nefarious services as glitzily as can be: "Do you want to sail to Italy aboard a well-equipped ship offering all necessary comforts starting from €5,500?"

But it is not an advert for a cruise – it’s how human traffickers are advertising trips to Europe on the social media. 

People traffickers, especially criminal organisations in Turkey, are making use of old freighters and cargo vessels to transport large numbers of migrants to Europe, and crew-abandoned ships carrying hundreds of Syrian asylum seekers have recently been intercepted by Italian authorities.

The scenes were reminiscent of the exodus of Albanian asylum seekers who tried to reach Italy and Malta aboard ships in 1991, and indicative of the new methods being used by people smugglers.

With millions of Syrians fleeing the four-year civil war, which has so far claimed some 200,000 lives, people smugglers are targeting well-off Syrians who are prepared to pay more to reach Europe than the sub-Saharan migrants we have become accustomed to can afford.

According to the UNHCR some 3,500 refugees died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2014, while another 200,000 were rescued. 

In 2013, hundreds of Syrian and sub-Saharan asylum seekers died in their attempts to reach Europe aboard rickety boats which departed from Libya.

However, now it seems that smugglers have turned their attention to Syrian migrants and are using safer routes, and considerably bulkier vessels. 

And they have also taken to new ways to advertise these trips, with Facebook pages such as “Taharib taiaran” (airborne smuggling) and “Tahrib bialbar” (sea smuggling) targeting Syrians who want to flee their war-torn country. 

The Facebook pages which include videos and images of the ships advertise six-day voyages to Italy departing from Mersin, a busy port city on the southern coast of Turkey close to the Syrian border, for €5,500.

They also offer discounted prices for group bookings. 

The posts on the Facebook pages, all in Arabic, include amatuer videos promoting the provision documents, passports and work permits. “We provide everything you need. Just ask,” one of the posts says.

According to reports in the Italian daily La Repubblica, traffickers also offer the possibility of providing fake passports, ID cards and international driving licences.  

One of the Facebook postings referring to a journey from Turkey to Italy, says “Price for adults to $4250; From 10 years to 14 years to $2125; Under 10 years free,” and “Good food; water; delivery to Italy.”

Italian authorities believe traffickers made some €2.5 million from 359 illegal migrants found abandoned on one of the cargo ships intercepted last week.

Moreover, a Syrian man who was aboard a second cargo ship which was also intercepted last week, revealed how he piloted the Moldovan-registered Blue Sky M which carried some 768 Syrian asylum seekers. 

Sarkas Rani, a 36-year-old Syrian, told Italian authorities how he was contacted in Turkey by smugglers who had posted notices on Facebook offering a passage to Europe.

“They promised me US$15,000 and the possibility of sending my entire family over,” Rani said during a police interrogation after the Syrian was arrested on 31 December in Gallipoli.

The Blue Sky M was intercepted on New Year’s Eve as it was locked on autopilot, heading for the Italian coast.

Rani acknowledged having left the cargo ship’s bridge to hide among the other asylum seekers once he had set the ship on autopilot.

Italian naval officers boarded the ship eight kilometres off the coast, just in time before it ran aground in what could have been a human catastrophe.

Rani, a former ship captain, was offered the opportunity to pilot the ship by an acquaintance who met him in Istanbul. He then travelled to Mersin from where the ship departed. 

Last week, EU agency Frontex warned that “in a rapid adaptation of strategy” smugglers have started using much larger boats. 

“These are typically decommissioned freighters, up to 75 metres long, procured in the ports of south-eastern Turkey, notably Mersin: 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,” Frontex said. 

The cargo ships, repaired and manned by crews sometimes hired from as far away as Russia, are piloted via Cyprus and Crete towards Italy, Frontex said, adding that smugglers have learned to time the departure of migrant boats so that they cross the paths of merchant ships heading for Europe. 

The agency pointed out that migrants are willing to pay exorbitant prices to book a place on a freighter leaving from Turkey to Europe, six times as much as they’d have to pay to board a ship from Libya. 

“Travelling from Turkey not only circumvents the considerable danger of capsizing in a small boat in rough seas, but it also avoids having to go to Libya,” Frontex said. “This increasingly lawless North African nation appears to have become too dangerous an operating environment, even for the criminal gangs.”

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