Italian coastguards take control of another abandoned cargo ship full of migrants – a disturbing trend that is the result of a growing exodus of refugees created by the war in Syria.
Video: Italian air force official being lowered onto the abandoned Ezadeen
The Italian coastguard confirmed that it had taken control of the ship and was heading for the port of Crotone.
The vessel was floating without power in rough seas around 65km off Capo di Leuca, the Italian air force had said.
“Because of the difficult weather conditions the ship can only be boarded from the air,” it said in a statement.
The ship has been identified as the 60-metre-long Ezadeen, registered to Sierra Leone. Before losing power, the ship was spotted around 130km offshore by a coastguard plane shortly after nightfall on Thursday.
The Ezadeen was built in 1966 and is a livestock carrier. It was due to be sailing from Cyrpus towards the southern French port of Sete, according to a website tracking maritime movements.
The ship appears to be registered with a shipping company in Tipoli, Lebanon. Channel 4 News has learned that the shipping company also has links to the Syrian city of Tartous, where the ship docked in October.
One of the people on board the Ezadeen managed to operate the ship’s radio and inform the coastguard that the crew had abandoned ship.
“We’re without crew, we’re heading toward the Italian coast and we have no-one to steer.” Apparent radio message from on-board migrant to the Italian coastguard
The coastguard asked for assistance from the Icelandic patrol boat Tyr which is patrolling the Italian coast as part of the EU Frontex border control mission.
The Tyr was able to sail alongside the ship but boarding it had been impossible because of bad weather conditions.
The Icelandic vessel has three doctors on board who will be winched on to the merchant ship by helicopter to treat any unwell passengers, the air force said.
Flavio Di Giacomo from the International Organisation for Migration told Channel 4 News that since the end of November, traffickers from Syria and Turkey had been using huge cargo ships to smuggle migrants into Europe.
“These are new routes, new ways of travelling,” he said.
Mr Di Giacomo said that he had spoken to migrants who had arrived in Italy in December. They told him that they had paid between $4,000 and $6,000 USD each for a place on the six-day-long journey.
“This is proof that the Mare Nostrum was not a pull factor. It does not exist anymore and the arrivals are still going on. There are so many crises happening close to the European borders.”
Mr Di Giacomo said that between mid-December and the end of the year 3,500 migrants arrived in Italy after crossing the Mediterranean.
James Wilkes, managing director of maritime investigation specialists Gray Page told Channel 4 News: “This is organised crime. Make no doubt about it.”
Mr Wilkes estimates that criminal gangs could make millions from smuggling migrants into Europe on the ships.
“They’d pay maybe a couple $100,000 USD for the vessel. To get these old ships legitimately registered is expensive. Owners won’t really mind who they’re selling them.
“They’re not scarce these ships. There’s nothing to shop another ship tomorrow, and another after that, and another after that.”
The Ezadeen is the second abandoned large vessel to be found drifting towards the Italian coast this week.
On Tuesday the Italian coastguard intercepted the Blue Sky M freighter after it made an abrupt change of course and headed towards the Italian coast.
Almost 1,000 migrants – mostly Syrians – were found on board including 60 children and two pregnant women. One of the women apparently gave birth as the ship steamed towards the coast on autopilot, according to the Italian Red Cross.
Four migrants were found dead on the cargo ship after it arrived in the province of Lecce.