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Ruthless smugglers’ new business: ‘Ghost ships’

Stephen Beard Jan 21, 2015
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Ruthless smugglers’ new business: ‘Ghost ships’

Stephen Beard Jan 21, 2015
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The wars in Syria and Iraq have triggered an unprecedented wave of refugees eagerly seeking – and prepared to pay for – a new life in Europe.

The United Nations reckons that last year 170,000 migrants, who are fleeing war, persecution or simply seeking a better standard of living, have arrived in Italy. Many have paid people traffickers to smuggle them in, making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in small fishing boats and even rubber dinghies. More than 3,000 lives have been lost. 

But now the traffickers have developed another business model to cater to this burgeoning new trade: It’s been called “the Ghost Ship” route, and here’s how it works: You buy a battered old cargo ship, pack it with hundreds of migrants, sail it across the Mediterranean, aim the vessel at the coast of a European Union country, and then abandon the ship and hope that the migrants reach safety. 

The Ezadeen, a 50-year-old former livestock carrier, is one of these so-called “ghost”  ships. The Italian Coast Guard intercepted it at sea last month, on its way from Turkey to Italy, and found 359 migrants on board, most of them Syrians, but no actual ship crew.

“It was incredibly dangerous,” says Ewa Moncure of Frontex, a European Union border agency. “There were no lifeboats or life vests.” The crew apparently abandoned the ship at full-speed at night in the Mediterranean, a danger to those on board and to others who are at sea, Moncure says.

Three of these ghost ships carrying a total of more than 1,000 migrants have arrived in European waters in recent weeks, an escalation by traffickers that does not entirely surprise experts on this grisly trade. Andrea Di Nicola, a criminologist at the University of Trento and co-author of “Confessions of a People Smuggler,” says traffickers are always quick to exploit a new business opportunity. “These are businessmen, opportunistic, criminal businessmen.” he says. “And this is a travel agency, the most ruthless travel agency on the planet. There’s a huge profit involved.”

Let’s look at the costs. “Ships at the end of their working life are worth little more than the scrap value they will yield if they are sailed to the breaking yards of Bangladesh or India.” says David Osler of Lloyd’s List, a maritime newspaper. Italian police claim that one of the ghost ships, the Ezadeen, cost the smugglers only $110,000.

Now, consider what the smugglers are charging for the trip: up to $6,000 per passenger.

“We estimated that one of the ships should have grossed revenues of $3 million,” says Joel Millman of the International Organization of Migration. “So if you do the math, you can see there are millions to be made.”

It looks like all of the passengers that have arrived on ghost ships so far are likely to be offered asylum. So far, none have perished at sea. The smugglers’ new business model is paying off, for the smugglers and their customers.

But the scale of the operation is putting many more people at risk. With another four ghost ships reportedly ready to sail, more migrant lives are likely to be lost in the Mediterranean this winter.

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