Migrant sailboats sail to Italy in new strategy

ROCCELLA JONICA, Italy (AP) – When the Taliban took over Kabul in August, Zakia was six months pregnant and in her freshman year of college, while her husband, Hamid, was working as an auditor. They decided to flee, and together with five relatives they began a two-month odyssey that took them through Iran and Turkey.

When it was time to cross the Mediterranean, they did so on a luxurious sailboat that landed this month on a beach in the Calabria region of southern Italy.

They were dehydrated, but relieved to have survived a lesser-known migration route to Europe, but increasingly used by Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians and wealthy Kurds. Entire families pay dearly for tickets from Turkey on new or almost new sailboats that can more easily avoid being detected by the authorities. Investigators say the ships are captained by smugglers, often Ukrainians, who could operate in concert with Turkish mobsters and Italian ‘ndrangheta clans on land.

Although humanitarian workers describe these trips as “first-class” crossings, there is nothing luxurious about them. Hamid and Zakia were crammed with 100 people below deck for a week, while food supplies dwindled. After two days without fresh water, Zakia no longer felt the baby move.

“It was the worst experience of my life,” Hamid said at an Italian gym as he and his wife waited to be processed and assigned a place to do the preventive COVID-19 quarantine, after their ship, the “ Passion Dalaware ”, will make landfall on November 10th.

For years, most medical, humanitarian and political attention has focused on the hundreds of thousands of migrants, mostly Africans, who cross the central Mediterranean in flimsy boats sent by smugglers from Libya and Tunisia.

The Calabrian route, which brings migrants from Turkey to the “tip” of Italy’s boot instead of Sicily and its southern islands, has seen its traffic quadruple in 2021 and now accounts for 16% of arrivals by sea to Italy this year.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is closely monitoring the situation, although the increase in arrivals to Calabria has occurred alongside a sharp increase in migrant arrivals to Sicilian ports. In total, 59,000 people have arrived in Italy so far this year, compared to 32,000 last year on this date. The Calabrian route has registered 9,687 people as of November 14, compared to 2,507 last year.

“We see Afghans. We see Iraqis. We see Iranians. Kurds, ”said Chiara Cardoletti, UNHCR representative in Italy. Although before most of those who arrived were single men, “right now on all routes what we see is an increase in the number of families arriving with many children. And that is the norm for the Calabrian route as well ”.

The Calabrian route is just one of many ways in which asylum seekers from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa try to reach Europe, an ongoing crisis that has fueled anti-immigrant sentiment on the continent and put it to the test. the solidarity of the European Union.

Hamid and Zakia’s bumpy journey cost much more than most: After escaping Kabul with Hamid’s sister, her husband and their three children, the family arrived in Turkey and paid 8,500 euros ($ 9,600) per adult and 4,000 euros ( $ 4,500) for children to get to Calabria. Hamid’s parents, who live in Sweden, helped finance the trip.

Hamid’s 29-year-old sister Tooba, who speaks English well, said her family decided to risk her life on the trip because life in Afghanistan under the Taliban was no longer safe, especially given her job as a lawyer.

“I cannot live in Kabul, and for them I must go to Afghanistan,” Tooba said as she cradled a sleeping child.

Like Hamid and Zakia, he asked that his last name not be used for security reasons.

Jamid said the smugglers had given them enough water for the first four or five days, but when it was over, the passengers drank seawater with sugar for the last two days.

As the ship approached shore, the passengers came on deck and watched as the two smugglers who had piloted the ship, both with their faces covered, fled in a black boat.

“The traffickers, who obviously have no concept of human scruples, now even cram 100 people into each sailboat,” said Vittorio Zito, mayor of Roccella Jonica, a small municipality on the Calabrian coast that has been a destination widely used by locals. smugglers.

Sailboats are difficult to intercept because even for air patrols, they look like normal pleasure boats. The “Passion Dalaware” even carried a plastic American flag on the sail.

Zito said smugglers can earn about 500,000 euros ($ 565,000) per trip on a stolen sailboat that costs about 100,000 euros ($ 113,000). Red Cross staff counted 101 people on Hamid’s boat, whose smugglers could have pocketed 858,500 euros ($ 969,000).

Lately so many sailboats of this class have arrived that their remains dot the Calabrian coast. Others are piled up at a shipbreaking near the port of Roccella Jonica.

The route is also used by smugglers who use fishing boats to sail from Libya. On November 14, 550 people arrived in Roccella Jonica, the highest number recorded in one day. The migrants, including at least 100 Egyptian minors, were rescued from two offshore fishing boats that had left Tobruk, a Libyan town near the Egyptian border.

Italian police have arrested a number of Ukrainian smugglers, who have been convicted of assisting and complicity in illegal immigration, but they are only small pawns in a larger illegal organization.

“We have to go beyond the specific boats and arrests of smugglers to understand the reason behind this exponential increase,” said Giovanni Bombardieri, said the researcher in the Calabrian capital of Reggio Calabria, who is leading the immigration investigation.

“It is clear that our work requires an assessment of the possible involvement of the clans of the ‘ndrangheta,” the organized crime syndicate with roots in Calabria told the AP.

Hamid and Zakia’s odyssey is not over. The different members of the family are in different places in Calabria to complete the two weeks of quarantine. They can then start the process of claiming asylum or trying to reunite with their relatives in Sweden.

There is also some good news.

“I am very happy,” said Zakia. “Italian doctors checked it and my baby is fine.”


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