Smugglers Offer Luxury Passage for Migrants, if They Can Pay

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“It is likely that the organization is made up of Turks who use professional Ukrainian skippers, traditionally skilled, for the crossing,” said Francesco Paolo Giordano, the chief prosecutor in Syracuse, a Sicilian port city, who is in charge of the investigations. “But it is still too early to say.”

Since the European Union cut a deal with Ankara in 2016, the numbers of refugees and migrants leaving Turkey in flimsy inflatable boats for the short passage to Greece have dropped sharply.

But the crackdown by the Turkish authorities has apparently not discouraged a widening network of hard-pressed but accomplished Ukrainian yachtsmen who ply the narrow Bosporus and are willing to smuggle Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians and others with the means and money. Captured boats have even included trophies and sailing medals.

The number of migrants in this elite category is a drop in the bucket compared with the 181,000 mostly sub-Saharan Africans who risked the treacherous crossing from Libya and Egypt to Sicily last year, dying by the hundreds nearly every week.

Nonetheless, the richer route from Turkish shores to southern Italy — occasionally on elegant wooden and fiberglass sailing vessels — is booming, the Italian authorities say.

Mr. Parini has watched the numbers of yachts engaged in the migrant trade grow steadily in his 10 years as head of an interforce group fighting illegal immigration.

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“Last November, we arrested a Ukrainian skipper for the second time and I recognized him,” Mr. Parini said. “He told me, ‘It’s not me, sir, I am his brother.’ Can you imagine what kind of business this is becoming if skippers do it routinely?”

One of the first luxury smuggling vessels Mr. Parini could recall arrived in September 2010, a graceful 11-meter, German-designed sailboat that landed on a beach near Syracuse, carrying Afghans and with three Turkish skippers at the helm.

In 2015, 111 migrants cruised to Sicilian shores aboard sailboats, and in 2016, 710 did.

But last year the route started gaining steam. Much international police work remains to be done to catch up with the smugglers, Italian officials said.

Investigators have so far found that smugglers mostly rent their boats from charter agencies in Turkey and leave from the ports of Cesme or Izmir at dawn.

The Ukrainian skippers the smugglers rely on are renowned for their skills, yet they have become increasingly desperate in their home country, which has itself been torn by war since 2014.

To avoid routine checks, the sailors skillfully navigate what is known as the “contiguous zone,” the continuous maritime area extending beyond any country’s territorial waters. Often the sailors have on hand several national flags — some fake, some not — that they can hoist according to the country they are approaching.

Typically, they at least have a Turkish, a Greek and an American flag, as many vessels are registered in Delaware, where “20 clicks and a credit card allow you to register a boat from anywhere,” said Mario Carnazza, a coast guard official on Mr. Parini’s team.

Mr. Carnazza recently showed a stylish, beige, 11-meter yacht sitting in the dock in Augusta, a large Sicilian port town where many of the migrants rescued by the Italian authorities and nonprofits end up.

In mid-March, the boat — called Maco — with its carbon fiber mast, nylon sails and pristine tender worth at least 3,000 euros (about $3,400) — was intercepted 70 miles off the Italian coast after smuggling 21 people across the Mediterranean Sea.

Aboard, the police found four medals and first-place trophies from Turkish sailing competitions, as well as Turkish pilot books, nautical maps and various stickers to change the name of the vessel.

For now, the skippers are the weak link in the chain. When caught, they have been charged with aiding and abetting illegal immigration, a crime that in Italy carries at least four years in prison. The court in Syracuse is currently trying 21 skippers.


A courtroom in Syracuse, Sicily, where smugglers are tried. Aiding and abetting illegal immigration is a crime in Italy that carries a penalty of at least four years in prison, but many skippers bargain for reduced sentences. Credit Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

Many have defended themselves by arguing that they were forced to pilot the boats out of economic necessity or by Turkish criminals who threatened their families back in Ukraine.

Some are able to bargain their sentences down to a few months, while others are allowed to leave prison early for good conduct. For some, it is a price worth paying in an extremely lucrative trade.

Mr. Parini’s three-man team in Syracuse finds itself increasingly overwhelmed, working out of a narrow office crammed with files that chronicle the central Mediterranean’s recent history of crime and despair. The cases pile up.

Three floors below their office, a trial ended on a recent day with judges affirming the prosecutor’s case that two Ukrainian engineers in their 30s ranked high in the criminal ring, even if they had denied being professional skippers.

“Those two got four years and six months,” Mr. Carnazza said.

Marilena Barone, a local lawyer who defended the men as well as five others over the last year and a half, said that her clients were trying to escape Ukraine. After looking for work in Turkey, they were taught how to sail and forced to undertake the voyage, she said.

“Through the entire trial, they have been very attentive and very serious,” Ms. Barone said. “They said that their nautical license is fake, so we will surely appeal.”

Yet in July 2015, they were caught after sailing across the Mediterranean with 74 migrants, mostly from Iraq, and running aground on a sandbar near Caponegro, a quiet beach north of here.

It was the same place that the Afghan family of six had landed.

The Afghan parents were both magistrates, and wore leather jackets. They and their four children — ages 8 through 15 — were among 60 migrants who made the crossing.

Their skippers were caught two weeks later in Crete as they tried to return to Turkey.

Hungry, the family had stopped at the first restaurant encountered on the walk into Avola, but the restaurant owner was suspicious and called the police, who picked up the family members and transferred them to a migrant center in Sicily. They soon vanished.

Mr. Parini has a collection of postcards from all over the world, from migrants who flee once they have been detained and then continue to other countries.

“I am confident I’ll get one from them as well,” he said. “We need to stop those who make money off of them.”

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