“Ghost Ships” That Carry Live Souls

Last week, two separate ships packed full of Middle Eastern migrants were found floating off the Italian coast, having been abandoned by their crews:

The cargo ship Ezadeen, which set sail under a Sierra Leone flag from a Turkish port this week, was discovered drifting without a captain 40 nautical miles from the Italian coast. Italian coastguards were forced to intervene to prevent a disaster and possibly save the lives of the estimated 450 people on board, many of them thought to be Syrian refugees. … The Ezadeen was the second vessel in four days to be found sailing without a crew. Earlier in the week, 800 migrants on the Blue Sky M, a Moldovan-registered ship, were rescued by Italian coastguards when it was discovered sailing without an active crew five miles off the coast. The two incidents have left observers of migrant routes in the Mediterranean fearing that people-smugglers have found a new and ruthless way of working in the area despite a recent decision to scale back Italian rescue operations.

The plight of the Blue Sky M and Ezadeen point to a new tactic by migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean. It’s less awful than deliberately shipwrecking them, as smugglers did on one voyage in September, drowning hundreds of refugees. Still, these “ghost ships” underscore the danger of the Mediterranean crossing and the desperation of those who make it. Barbie Latza Nadeau revisits an interview from December with Moutassem Yazbek, a Syrian refugee who had made the crossing last year and explained how the smuggling system works:

In many cases, he says, the smuggler kingpins hire refugees with seafaring experience to work as crewmembers on the ships in exchange for discounted passage. They are not the actual traffickers, Yazbek says, so generally the other refugees protect their identity. On his boat that came into Sicily three weeks ago, Yazbek says the refugee “crew members” hired by the smugglers were never exposed. Instead the refugees told the authorities that they abandoned the ship at sea, when in reality the men who piloted the ship blended in and were treated no differently than the other refugees.

“We weren’t protecting the smugglers—we were protecting the poor people that helped the ship to reach that stage,” he says. “Those people are refugees who worked as a crew to save some money. In my opinion I think that the smugglers are real criminals. If not, they wouldn’t make the prices so high; they would accept a smaller margin. I think they are anything but heroes.” Frontex estimates that the smugglers on the two large cargo ships that arrived in Italy last week cleared more than $3 million after the price of the aging vessel was subtracted.

But Melanie McDonagh isn’t sure how much sympathy she has for these particular refugees:

The Syrians now arrived in Italy paid between $4,000 and $6,000 for their passage. Many of those on deck were young and seem relatively fit. We are not talking here about the huddled masses, the human debris of the Lebanese or Jordanian refugee camps, but the more prosperous of those displaced by the conflicts in Syria and Eritrea.

If we, Europe, were to take the neediest refugees it might not be these. And if their efforts are rewarded with permanent residency in Europe, ultimately with citizenship, and in the case of those who get to Sweden, with the right to bring their families with them, then the gamble will have paid off. They have jumped the queue ahead of those perhaps more deserving of refuge abroad. They made a rational calculation about the terrible risks of going to sea with criminal traffickers and, more fortunate than those who died during the year crossing the Mediterranean (an estimated 3,500), they got lucky.

Meanwhile, Patrick Kingsley notes that the “Arab Spring” has generated the world’s largest wave of migrations since World War II:

Wars in Syria, Libya and Iraq, severe repression in Eritrea, and spiralling instability across much of the Arab world have all contributed to the displacement of around 16.7 million refugees worldwide. A further 33.3 million people are “internally displaced” within their own war-torn countries, forcing many of those originally from the Middle East to cross the lesser evil of the Mediterranean in increasingly dangerous ways, all in the distant hope of a better life in Europe.

“These numbers are unprecedented,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration. “In terms of refugees and migrants, nothing has been seen like this since world war two, and even then [the flow of migration] was in the opposite direction.”