Migrant smugglers have started to use larger ships, Frontex warns

Frontex says that migrant smugglers have learned to time the departure of ships so that they cross the paths of merchant ships, who would then be obliged to rescue the migrants as per international maritime law 

Smugglers are frequently making use of old freighters and cargo vessels to transport larger numbers of migrants to Europe, EU agency Frontex warned, while adding that most of these ships are obtained in south-eastern Turkey.

Italian authorities this week rescued around 1,000 migrants from the Moldovan-flagged Blue Sky M cargo ship after its crew, believed to be human traffickers, had abandoned it and left it heading towards Italy on autopilot. Italian authorities also said that a second merchant ship carrying at least 400 migrants is heading towards the Italian coast. 

“In a rapid adaptation of strategy that has become their hallmark, the smugglers have started using much larger boats,” Frontex said in a statement. “These are typically decommissioned freighters, up to 75 meters 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.

“The freighters, repaired and manned by crews sometimes hired from as far away as Russia, are piloted via Cyprus and Crete towards Italy, which remains the EU destination of choice for refugees from the Middle East.”

Frontex also warned that smugglers have learned to time the departure of migrant boats so that they cross the paths of merchant ships heading for Europe. When the migrants issue a distress call, the nearby merchant ships would be obliged by international maritime law to rescue them and disembark them at the nearest port of call.

“Some 30% of all migrants rescued at sea in September and October were picked up by civilian shipping,” Frontex said.

Frontex pointed out that migrants are willing to pay exorbitant prices to book a place on a freighter leaving from Turkey to Europe, 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.”

However, Frontex warned that the engines of the old ships used by smugglers operating on the Turkey route are often highly unreliable.

“In the last six weeks alone, one freighter has been found drifting near Cyprus; another was rescued 30 miles off Crete; still others, off the Italian coast,” Frontex said. “The danger of shipwreck is greatly increased by the smugglers’ habit of switching off the freighter’s Automatic Identification System. The effect is to make the boat electronically invisible to the Italian search and rescue authorities – a stratagem that buys time for the smuggling crew to escape by fast launch and thus avoid arrest.”

Since the launch of the Frontex-coordinated Operation Triton in the central Mediterranean on 1 November, around 11,400 migrants have been rescued, around 10,000 of them in situations classified as “distressed”, in 77 separate search-and-rescue operations.

“Although significantly smaller than the number recorded during the August peak – when some 28,000 migrants were detected on this route – this level of traffic is still unprecedented for wintertime,” Frontex said.