ROME—For the more than 1,000 Syrian refugees who reached Italy by sea last week, the crossing was merely one step in a long journey from war to peace. But for the authorities dealing with a truly massive migrant influx—170,000 in the last 12 months—the passage underscored a troubling new strategy in an increasingly high-stakes smuggling racket.
The drama of ghost ships pointed toward Europe on autopilot in hopes that European navies will rescue the people aboard has called attention to the new routes being used by traffickers. In this potentially deadly game of chicken, the Blue Sky Me nearly crashed into Italy’s rocky coast with 700 people aboard last week, and the squalor of the Ezadeen, intercepted over the weekend, is hard to forget. It used to carry livestock but sailed its final voyage with a hold full of Syrian men, women, and children.
As these people flee a country that seems to have no hope, they are attempting to better their lives and futures by reaching European shores. And instead of crossing in small, foundering dinghies and fishing boats sailing from the lawless shores of Libya, which is a common refugee route in the summer, they brave the turbulent seas of winter in ships that are good for little else but scrap.
We saw this coming. In early December, The Daily Beast interviewed several refugees who landed in Sicily, and we have stayed in touch with some of them since to better understand how they arranged their trips to Europe’s coast, and then what they did after they landed.
The first thing they told us was that the traffickers are now using Turkish ports, which are relatively easy to reach from Syria. “There is a little office near the port where a broker takes your money and gives you a password,” Ali Saed said, explaining how he and his wife and their 5-year-old daughter bought three tickets in the Turkish town of Mersin for passage to Italy on a smuggler’s boat. They cost $4,000 each. “It is very organized,” he said. “You can wire them the money or give them cash. They sell other kinds of tickets, too, for tourism excursions.”
But the passengers don’t pick their ships or their itineraries. In most cases, the old scows are anchored far from shore and the refugees are shuttled in smaller boats until the traffickers have enough human cargo to make the journey worth it. Some refugees wait for days on the ships before setting sail.
In December, we met Moutassem Yazbek, 27, a multilingual IT specialist, as he disembarked from rescue vessels at the military port of Augusta, Sicily. He was part of a group of 460 Syrians who made it safely to Italy, at last, after being picked up by the European naval vessels in Frontex, the recently scaled-down European coalition patrol trying to intercept the migrant ships. Then, just a few days later, Yazbek was headed north.
“Getting out of Italy wasn’t that easy,” he told The Daily Beast when we caught up with him in Germany, where he has now applied for political asylum and hopes to find work once he learns the language. “We went by ourselves to Milan. From there we took the train to Nice, France, but the French border control caught us and sent us back to Italy. We walked 15 kilometers to Ventimiglia, Italy.”
There, Yazbek and four other Syrians he was traveling with called a trafficker who helped them cross the border for €50 apiece by hiding them in a tour bus. “We met the smuggler in the train station; he came to speak with us about the services he provided,” Yazbek says. “Finding a smuggler in Ventimiglia is easier than finding good food.”
The Italian newspaper La Repubblica, in an exclusive exposé published Monday, reported how it contacted a trafficker directly who quoted figures for fake documents as extra services beyond safe passage: “One passport valid for two years $1,500; if you want one that lasts four years, $1,700; for six years, $1,800,” the trafficker promised, according to the paper. “Identity card, $500, international driver’s license, $500.”
Yazbek says the sea smugglers and land smugglers aren’t connected, but he pointed us to a Facebook page where Syrians and other Arabic speakers can explore options. One of the postings refers to a journey from Mersin, Turkey, to Italy, directing refugees to go to the “Insurance Bashafra office” in Mersin. “Price for adults to $4250; From 10 years to 14 years to $2125; Under 10 years free,” the listing says. “Good food; water; delivery to Italy.”
Another posting details a final plan for a journey, apparently through a broker working between the smuggler and refugees, admonishing them not to back out. “Please all of you who are not convinced and want to withdraw, inform me now… I am committed to a certain percentage,” the liaison writes. “I will send the payment site insurance office and the location of the hotel and all the information…. Trust me.”
The site, which has nearly 2,000 members and hundreds of entries, is a sort of TripAdvisor-style message board where refugees can essentially recommend or criticize smugglers. Yazbek tells The Daily Beast that the traffickers guarantee their service, and they treat the Syrian refugees with respect. He says people share the smugglers’ numbers once they’ve made it to Europe. “Normally after finding the smuggler and taking the final decision to use him, the money will be deposited to the designated money deposit offices that provide this service between the smugglers and the refugees,” he says. “I had a feeling that Turkish authorities were closing their eyes.”
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.
Like any service for hire, it is extremely important for the traffickers to provide a reputable service, criminal as it is. Yazbek describes the organizational chart as one in which those who own the ships hire brokers to bring in business, working on commission. The brokers then scout out potential “crew members” who can earn substantial discounts for working the journey. “Competition is there, of course, but I think there is enough business for everyone as long as the demand is there,” he says. “If something happens with the ship, the smuggler will lose his reputation in this field. It’s funny, I know, but it’s true and that reputation is why I chose the smuggler that I dealt with.”
As Europe grapples with the influx of refugees, now considered the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, many politicians in Italy and other countries have expressed concern that these refugee boats could be infiltrated by terrorists. But many who arrive in Italy say that the refugees form an intimate community and that it would be easy to spot someone who was capitalizing on the situation to bring terror to Europe rather than escaping the terror in Syria.
Alaa Slaipe, 26, a hairdresser who arrived in Sicily in December, told The Daily Beast that the bonds formed from taking such risks together were unbreakable. “A month ago I didn’t know any of these people,” he said. “Now they are not just my friends, they are my brothers.”
Still, the security on the vessels—big or small—is nonexistent. Yazbek says no one takes names, and no one checks for weapons or other contraband. “They didn’t check us for guns but I’m sure no guns were on the boat,” he says. “At the same time anyone could carry anything—even drugs—easily.”
In 2014, 170,000 people came to Italy from places like Eritrea and Syria. An additonal 30,000 made it to Europe by other routes including commercial flights and dangerous overland passages.
Yazbek and the others who make it safely feel they are victims of war, not victims of the traffickers who exploit their desperation. “I understand that European and modern culture and the whole secular system feels in danger because of the Islamic extending, and it’s a serious matter, but I think the international community has to be responsible,” he says. “I understand that this is human trafficking, but I know that my people have no other option.”