A freighter intercepted while heading towards the Italian coast on autopilot with almost a thousand migrants on board was sold to a Syrian citizen two weeks ago, Channel 4 News has learned.
The Italian coast guard boarded the Blue Sky M freighter on Tuesday after its crew abandoned it and left it sailing towards the coast of Italy on autopilot with almost 1,000 migrants on board.
After a dramatic helicopter operation, the Italian authorities took control of the ship and brought it into the port of Gallipoli. Most of the people on board were Syrians, despite it not being a passenger vessel. Earlier reports of four deaths are said to be erroneous.
A Moldovan man who was on the ship, identified by the migrants as a smuggler, has been arrested, according to the Press Association quoting judicial officials. The ship flew under a Moldovan flag.
Italian Red Cross spokeswoman Mimma Antonagi said: “The ship was abandoned by its crew in open water. If (Italian officers) had not gone on board, it would have crashed into the coast.”
The Blue Sky M had been travelling from Turkey to Croatia, but when it had passed the Greek island of Corfu, it made a sharp course change, towards Italy.
Adrian Mihalcioiu, International Transport Federation’s representative in Romania, told Channel 4 News that he had spoken to the agent to the owner of the ship.
Mr Mihalciou says: “The vessel was under management in Romania, flagged under Moldova. It was sold two weeks ago in Turkey. The new owner is a Syrian person.”
Channel 4 News confirmed this with the agent to the former master of the vessel.
It is thought that the crew of the Blue Sky M had gone missing. Mr Mihalciou said that it was often difficult to tell who different ships are registered to, and crew will often work with no questions asked.
“Syrians or Egyptians are ready to work $300 or $500 per month (£190-320) and they will not care what sort of ship it is. Some without any knowledge or education, just documents printed in Syria… often fake certificates. This is a very large number of sea farers.”
With traffickers charging around £6,000 per passenger, meaning that the total revenue from a ship carrying 1,000 people could be in the region of £6m.
The ship was estimated to be valued at around £250,000.
Mariana Iancu, a local journalist at the port city of Constanta, Romania, where the ship is registered, told Channel 4 News: “I know that Blue Sky M ship was sold about two weeks ago to a Syrian and then the crew was also changed.”
The local Italian Red Cross said that among the 700 people aboard were pregnant women, and that the rescuers were concerned that a number may be suffering from symptoms of hypothermia.
The border agency Frontex told us this method of trafficking may be part of a new winter strategy to bring migrants and refugees to Europe.
Gilberto Busti, a local man who saw the ship dock in Gallipoli, told the BBC: “I saw the police and the Red Cross that set up the tents. I have a friend in civil protection who told me that there were about 800 to 900 people inside the ship.”
“We can’t confirm that there are dead people inside but my friend told me that there were about four or five dead people.”
The ship initially sent a distress signal because of armed people aboard, Greek state television has reported.
The Syrian Civil War has led to hundreds of thousands of refugees leaving the country.
The United Nations has said that 160,000 migrants arrived in Italy via sea routes by 2014, with thousands dying while attempting the journey.