A lesser-known route to Europe is increasingly being used by wealthier Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian and Kurd migrants. Entire families are paying top price for passage from Turkey aboard new or nearly new yachts that more easily avoid detection by authorities.
Investigators say the yachts are captained by smugglers, often Ukrainians, who may be in cahoots with Turkish mobsters and Italian ’ndrangheta clans on shore.
Not as ‘elite’ as it sounds
While aid workers call these “1st class” crossings, there is nothing elite about them. Up to 100 people can be below deck for a week with insufficient food and water.
“The traffickers, who obviously have no concept of human scruples, are now even squashing 100 people in each yacht,” said Vittorio Zito, the mayor of Roccella Jonica, a small town on the Calabrian coast that has been a prime destination for smugglers.
Zito said smugglers can make about €500,000 per trip on a stolen yacht that costs around €100,000. They then desert the boats and migrants at the shoreline. The carcasses of the boats line the Calabrian coast. Others lie piled up in a boat cemetery near the port in Roccella Jonica.
The Calabrian route brings the migrants from Turkey to the “toe” of boot-shaped Italy rather than Sicily and its islands further south. It has seen a nearly four-fold increase in arrivals in 2021. The new route now accounts for 16% of the sea arrivals in Italy this year.
Increase in migrant numbers
For years, most political, humanitarian and media attention has focused on the hundreds of thousands of migrants who cross the central Mediterranean aboard unseaworthy vessels from Libya and Tunisia.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is monitoring the situation closely. A similar increase in Sicilian ports is also taking place. Overall, sea arrivals in Italy this year are up to 59,000 compared with 32,000 at this point last year. The Calabrian route has seen 9,687 arrivals as of Nov. 14, compared with 2,507 last year.
“We are seeing Afghans. We are seeing Iraqis, Iranians, Kurds,” said Chiara Cardoletti, the UNHCR representative in Italy. Whereas single men used to account for most migrants, “right now on all the routes what you are seeing is an increase in the number of families arriving with lots of children. And that is true also for the route to Calabria.”
Smugglers bringing fishing boats from Libya also use the route. On Nov. 14, 550 migrants arrived in Roccella Jonica, the highest number in one day. The migrants, including at least 100 Egyptian minors, were rescued from two fishing boats off the coast that had departed from Tobruk, a town in Libya near the Egyptian border.
Organised crime involvement
Italian police arrested several Ukrainian smugglers, who have been sentenced for aiding and abetting illegal migration. However, they are just small cogs in the wheel of a larger criminal operation.
“We have to go beyond the individual boats and arrests of smugglers to understand the reason behind the exponential increase,” said Giovanni Bombardieri. He is the chief prosecutor in the Calabrian capital of Reggio Calabria, who is leading the migration investigation.
“It is clear that our work requires an evaluation of the possible involvement of clans of the ’Ndrangheta,” the Calabrian-based organised crime syndicate, he told the AP.