21 Apr 2015

Italy’s crackdown on Mediterranean migrant smugglers

As Italian prosecutors arrest the captain and a crew member of the boat on which as many as 900 people may have drowned, Italian police are also cracking down on people smugglers.

Italian police operation against traffickers

Late on Monday Italian prosecutors said they had arrested the two men, accused of people smuggling, from among the 27 survivors brought to shore.

But at the same time Italian police were moving on a wider criminal organisation accused of facilitating the perilous journeys taken by migrants across the Mediterranean.

Italy’s Polizia di Stato issued arrest warrants for 24 people accused of being party of the human trafficking gang, and arrested 15 of them in Sicily, Milan and Rome. The group is said to be made up of Eritreans, Ethiopians, Ivorians, Ghanaians and Guineans. Two alleged ringleaders, Ermias Ghermay and Mered Medhanie, remain at large.

‘The general’

Ermias Ghermay

Police had already named Mr Ghermay (pictured, right) in an arrest warrant in July 2014, believing him to be responsible for the Lampedusa boat disaster in October 2013 in which over 366 people died. In an intercepted telephone conversation, in which Mr Ghermay was told of the Lampedusa disaster, he is said to have responded: “It was Allah’s will”.

Police in Palermo say Mr Medhanie is known as “the general” because he styled himself on former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

According to Franco Lo Voi, Palermo’s chief prosecutor, Mr Medhanie was recorded laughing about the crammed conditions on the boats. According to wiretap transcripts, Mr Medhanie also claimed to have sent up to 8,000 people on boats to Italy this year.

Both Mr Medhanie and Mr Ghermay reportedly live comfortable lives in Tripoli, Libya.

‘Travel agent’

Palermo prosecutor Maurizio Scalia said the organisation “performs a function similar to that of a good travel agent”. He said migrants would pay $4,000 to $5,000 to travel from Ethiopia or Eritrea to Libya, and then an additional $1,000 to $1,500 for the sea journey to Italy.

Survivors from Sunday's Mediterranean disaster