Since New Year’s Eve two rusting cargo ships overflowing with cold, hungry, desperate people have arrived on Italy’s southern coast. They are a worrying sign that the Mediterranean’s refugee and migrant crisis is becoming a greater catastrophe. We covered this crisis for Intelligent Life last summer, after visiting El Kabariya, a village outside Tunis. We spoke to the families of economic migrants who, four years ago, had escaped impoverished Tunisia for Europe in small boats, never to be seen again. Today, tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing conflict in the Middle East by sea. The majority are Syrians and, unlike on other refugee boats, many on these two enormous ships were middle-class professionals. A UN video of one of the ship’s arrivals shows a young boy and girl standing on the quay clutching a big white toy rabbit—not something very poor children would carry. Another passenger, Mohamed, had been in his final year at the dental school in Aleppo, until it was destroyed.
Over the last three years the number of people crossing to Europe, from both Africa and the Middle East, has tripled: 200,000 attempted the journey in 2014, and more than 3,000 of them died. The latest twist is that smugglers are charging richer Syrian refugees large sums of money, buying old and dangerous freighters to transport them from Turkey to Italy, and, in these two recent incidents, leaving them and their passengers at sea. The Blue Sky M arrived in Gallipoli, a fishing town in Puglia, on December 31st after smugglers locked the autopilot towards the Italian coast with 700 Syrian and Kurdish refugees on board. Italian coastguards managed to disengage the autopilot and prevent it crashing into shore. Two days later the Ezadeen was left drifting and had to be towed by Italian coastguards to Coriglione, in Calabria. Fitted out for cattle and sheep, it was carrying 359 Syrians, including three pregnant women and more than 60 children. After 10 days, when food and water had long run out, a passenger managed to make a distress call on the ship’s radio, saying: “We’re without crew, we're heading toward the Italian coast and we have no one to steer.”
In the past there have been fewer crossings in the rough winter seas. Today larger boats are setting out in all weathers: more people are coming, and the smugglers are making big money. “Because smugglers see the Syrians as able to pay, they charge them more than other nationalities,” says Flavio di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration in Italy. Professionals such as chemists, doctors and engineers can afford the $5,000 fee from Turkey, and others sell all their possessions to raise it. On crossings from Libya there is a sliding scale, di Giacomo adds: children under seven generally travel free, and if the family or group is large there may be a discount. There is also a reduction in price when a ship carries more than 500 people.
Smugglers can bring in around $3m in fees per crossing, and pay only $100,000 to $200,000 for these rust-bucket ships. With those profit margins smugglers can afford to abandon a ship. The Blue Sky M and the Ezadeen both travelled along a smuggling route from Turkey to Italy that opened in October last year, which around 15 large ships—each carrying several hundred passengers—have used so far. “We are worried that smugglers are making so much money that smuggling on this route will not decrease,” di Giacomo says.
That poses a problem for Italy, and the rest of Europe. Italy’s rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, was launched in 2013 at a cost of €9m ($10.6m) a month. Italy has asked repeatedly for help, but under pressure from anti-immigration lobbies some European governments have started to see rescue as a “pull factor” that encourages more boats, because smugglers assume they won’t let them sink. Britain argues that if rescues are cut back, fewer will set out; and last October it refused to give its support for Mediterranean search-and-rescue operations. Mare Nostrum has since been wound down and replaced by Triton, a smaller-scale EU operation with border control, not rescue, as its primary objective. The numbers, and the difficulty of solving their underlying causes—conflict, persecution and poverty—present Europe with a genuine dilemma. The urgent political debate is: to rescue, or not to rescue? But cutting back on rescue will not stop the refugees from leaving. Nor will it absolve states from the moral and legal duty to save lives.