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Are disposable ships the new norm for illegal immigration?

Are disposable ships the new norm for illegal immigration?
The ending of the Italian Mare Nostrum agreement in November has sparked doom-and-gloom speculation that shipping might be left as the sole lifeline for the illegal migrants being desperately crammed into rickety boats and sailed across the Mediterranean.

A statement by the International Organisation on Migration (IOM) recently highlighted “the spectre of large, disposable crafts bearing hundreds of migrants across dangerous waters”, with traffickers charging as much as $8,000 per migrant, according to some reports, for passage from war-torn Syria and other countries.

“The predictability of thousands now fleeing Syria every month allows smugglers to plan for a reliable stream of customers, which of course allows them to set a price point,” IOM spokesperson Joel Millman explained. “So they can predict how much revenue each trip will bring, and then quickly deploy vessels and crews.

”The two recent cases of the Moldova-flagged Blue Sky M, abandoned with 736 aboard, and the Ezadeen, abandoned with 359 Syrian refugees, would seem to bear this out. But one industry figure who remains unconvinced is the ICS’ Peter Hinchliffe. “What we’ve been seeing is a couple of vessels being abandoned in rough seas,” he told Seatrade Global.

“These two cases are very different from what we saw throughout the rest of 2014.

“I don’t see how this could be an effective business model - spending the money on a ship and then abandoning it when it gets close to the shore. These are obviously very old ships approaching the end of their service lives, but I still don’t think it would be particularly effective model to abandon them.”

But IOM cites estimations of the value of the ships at “between $100,000 and $150,000” which, with anything up to 900 passengers on a single rickety hulk, enables traffickers to pocket “upwards of $3m” per voyage.

“IOM analysts do believe the prospect of single-nationality cargoes – on these latest voyages, migrants fleeing Syria – creates opportunities for smuggling rings to employ certain economies of scale that were not apparent in the more ‘mixed’ passenger manifests seen leaving Egypt and Libya in 2014.

”In fact, some migrants’ testimony indicates that the crew are not abandoning the vessel at all, with IOM highlighting reports of the crew of Blue Sky M turning on autopilot and then, having apparently abandoned ship, merging with the rest of the migrants.

However, faced with the prospect – as many in the industry have speculated - that these latest incidents could be part of a trend following the end of the Mare Nostrum agreement in November, both Hinchliffe and IOM agree that this has little to do with it.

IOM Italy chief of mission Federico Soda indicated: “That traffic remained heavy through the end of 2014 – over 2,000 migrants were rescued just during Christmas week, and now into the New Year – suggests that under present conditions it matters little whether the Mediterranean is being patrolled under Italy’s Mare Nostrum programme or its replacement, the Triton mission.”

“Smugglers are making a lot of money on long and dangerous sea crossings. With this money they can buy other boats and continue their activity along this or new routes.”“This new route is a direct consequence of the Syrian crisis,” Soda concluded. “Despite the end of the Mare Nostrum’s rescue-at-sea operations, arrivals continue because of the many crises close to Europe.”Meanwhile Hinchliffe is adamant that operation Triton is not, in fact, a replacement to Mare Nostrum and is “a different thing entirely”.

“The Mare Nostrum agreement was about putting Italian warships in the Mediterranean to conduct Search and Rescue operations,” Hinchliffe explained. “Triton only has two vessels in operation and the focus is on border control.“There’s been a lot of talk about the Mare Nostrum agreement ending, but as these two cases have shown us, these warships are still there."

Clearly, then, a united European initiative is needed to tackle the problem before it reaches crisis levels. “We have never seen so many arrivals during the winter,” warned Soda. “If the arrivals don’t decrease, it will not be possible to respond in an adequate way to such big numbers and the risk of shipwrecks will increase.”

“What’s required is a co-ordinated European policy on how to deal with this problem,” Hinchliffe concluded.