How migrant smugglers are exploiting the international protection System.
PHOTO: A. D’Amatao/UNHCR
‘Ghost ships’ and the on-water abandonment of the hundreds of migrants they carry is an ominous sign for policymakers.
Migrant smuggling may once have been the bastion of small-scale operators seeking to move people across borders illegally. The emergence of ghost ships carrying hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea shows how times have changed. They are a warning sign that smugglers may be in the ascendancy and that the international protection system risks being undermined.
This new tactic by migrant smugglers is potentially very lucrative for them. It is reported that the organisers of the Ezadeen merchant ship rescued in Italian waters in January earned around USD 3 million, with each of the 350 migrants on board paying up to USD 8,000. Only two days earlier a larger ghost ship carrying around 800 migrants was saved in the Mediterranean Sea from what could have been a massive maritime disaster.
The on-water abandonment by smugglers is a new development in large-scale maritime smuggling operations. Where previously small vessels were used to transport migrants from North Africa, Turkey, Syria and elsewhere, larger cargo vessels were used more frequently during 2014.
Using cargo ships for migrant smuggling is anything but small-scale. It’s not able to be done hastily. It’s not ad hoc. It would take considerable time as well as planning, organisational and delivery capability, and many people would be involved directly and indirectly. While it is difficult to judge whether the use of ghost ships will become more common, they signal greater sophistication and some ominous signs for policymakers, migrants and others.