Human traffickers made more than $1 million from the nearly 500 migrants aboard just one “ghost ship,” which Italian sailors found abandoned off the heel of Italy on Friday, according to a statement from Frontex, the European Union’s border agency. Thousands of desperate refugees from war-torn Syria have fled to Italy this year, Agence France-Presse reported.
"Our reports are of payments of $1,000 to 2,000 per person leaving Syria and attempting to sail from Turkey," International Organization for Migration spokesman Joel Millman told AFP. “Enough revenue to pay for a disposable craft, crew, vessels to evacuate the crew and, presumably, make any bribe payments that might have been useful in furthering the scheme.”
The vessel, a Sierra Leone-registered merchant ship called the Ezadeen, had been abandoned by its crew and approached Italy’s jagged shores on autopilot when six Coast Guard officers were lowered onto the deck from a helicopter. The Coast Guard is towing the crewless ship toward the Italian port of Corigliano Calabro and should arrive late Friday or early Saturday, according to Frontex.
“The migrants aboard were visibly distressed but overall in good medical condition - they have been provided with food, water and basic medical assistance,” the Frontex statement said Friday.
The nearly 50-year-old ship was on its way to a southern French port from northern Turkish-controlled Cyprus. However, the Ezadeen’s voyage began at the Syrian port of Tartus in October, according to a shipping website. Most Syrian refugees who have arrived in Italy this year came through North Africa, according to AFP.
In the last 14 months, Italian officials have rescued more than 170,000 people and hundreds or even thousands have not survived the journey, AFP reported. Millman told AFP that smugglers have recently been using larger cargo ships and filling them almost exclusively with Syrians. The traffickers have discovered a lucrative niche by transporting those desperately trying to escape the civil war in Syria, AFP reported.
The Italian navy stopped another “ghost ship” on Wednesday carrying nearly 770 migrants. The Moldovan-registered Blue Sky M was on autopilot and had been abandoned by human traffickers from Turkey. A deadly fire broke out Sunday on the Italian-owned Norman Atlantic ferry between Greece and Italy with nearly 500 passengers and crew onboard. Italian prosecutor Giuseppe Volpe told AFP that it had been “established” that illegal immigrants were aboard the ship. The charred vessel was towed into the southern Italian port of Brindisi on Friday so officials could investigate the incident and search for possible victims, AFP reported.