Smugglers attempting to bring in refugees across the Mediterannean are now using luxury sailboats to sneak past authorities on the lesser-known Calabrian route.
But while the idea of arriving by such a vessel might sound luxurious — compared with the often-unseaworthy Europe-bound boats launched by smugglers from Libya and Tunisia — the reality is very much different.
Both witnesses and the authorities claim that a number of expensive vessels are being used to bring in up to a hundred people per boat stowed away below deck, with limited access to food and water for at least a week.
“It was the worst experience of my life,” Hamid told AP after the sailboat that brought him to Italy together with his wife, Zakia, came ashore on November 10.
Zakia was six months pregnant and in her first year of university while her husband, Hamid, was working as an auditor in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Then the Taliban took back the country in August, and the two decided to flee, escaping the Afghan capital with Hamid's sister, her husband, and their three children.
For the family, this was the beginning of a two-month odyssey that first took them through Iran and Turkey, where they boarded the luxury boat, “Passion Dalaware”, paying a hefty sum of 8,500 euros per adult and 4,000 euros for each child to get to Calabria.
Zakia feared she had lost her child on the sailboat after two days without fresh water, but once in Italy, the baby was deemed healthy after Italian doctors provided her with necessary medical care.
Ukrainian smugglers, Turkish mobsters, and 'Ndrangheta
Entire families are paying top price for the trip from Turkey aboard new or nearly new sailboats that can more easily avoid detection by authorities.
Investigators say they are captained by smugglers, often Ukrainians, who may be in cahoots with Turkish mobsters and Italian 'Ndrangheta clans on the country’s shore.
Italian police have arrested several Ukrainian smugglers who have been sentenced for aiding and abetting illegal migration, but they are just small cogs in the wheel of a larger criminal operation.
The Calabrian route, which brings the migrants from Turkey to the "toe" of boot-shaped Italy rather than Sicily and its islands further south, has seen a nearly four-fold increase in arrivals in 2021 and now accounts for 16 per cent of all sea arrivals in Italy this year.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is monitoring the situation closely, though the increase in Calabrian arrivals is mirrored by a similarly sharp increase in migrants arriving in Sicilian ports.
Overall, arrivals by sea in Italy this year are up to 59,000, compared with 32,000 at this point last year.
The Calabrian route has seen 9,687 arrivals as of November 14, compared to 2,507 in 2020.
This is still a far cry from the numbers seen during the peak of the refugee crisis when almost 130 thousand people came to Italy by sea in 2016, with more than one million people crossing the Mediterranean in 2015, according to data from the International Organisation for Migration.
And this time around it is mostly families who are seeking safety on the Old Continent via Italy, says Chiara Cardoletti, the UNHCR representative in the country.
"Right now on all the routes what you are seeing is an increase in the number of families arriving with lots of children. And that is true also for the route to Calabria," she stated.
The Calabrian route is just one of the myriad ways that would-be refugees from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa try to reach Europe, a steady crisis that has fuelled anti-immigrant sentiment on the continent and strained European Union solidarity.
Hamid's sister, Tooba, said the family decided to risk their lives on the journey because life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule was no longer safe, especially given her work as a lawyer.
"I cannot live in Kabul, and because of them I must leave Afghanistan," said Tooba, who asked that her last name was not used for fears over her and her family’s safety.
Now safe in Italy, the family must undergo mandatory two-week COVID-19 isolation before it can either apply for asylum there.
Hamid said the smugglers provided enough water for the first four or five days, but that after it ran out, the passengers drank seawater with sugar for the final two days.
When the sailboat approached the shore, the passengers came up on deck only to see the two smugglers who had captained the ship, both wearing ski masks, fleeing the scene in a black boat.
"The traffickers, who obviously have no concept of human scruples, are now even squishing 100 people in each sailboat," said Vittorio Zito, the mayor of Roccella Jonica, a small town on the Calabrian coast that has been a prime destination for smugglers.
False American flag
The sailboats are difficult to intercept since even to aerial patrols, they look like normal pleasure boats.
Some of the sailboats are also stolen and sail under flags different than that of the country of origin, making them even more difficult to pick out.
The "Passion Dalaware" was flying an American flag from its sail.
Zito said smugglers can make about 500,000 euros per trip.
Red Cross officials counted 101 people on the boat that brought Zakia and Hamid to Italy. Sailboats like the "Passion Dalaware" usually accommodate up to 20 times less.
Those sailing it stood to pocket a total of 858,500 euros.
Once the sailboats reach Calabria, they are usually deserted on the shore. While some are left to rot along the Calabrian coast, unmoored, others are piled up in a boat cemetery near the port in Roccella Jonica.
"We have to go beyond the individual boats and arrests of smugglers to understand the reason behind the exponential increase," said Giovanni Bombardieri, chief prosecutor in Reggio Calabria.
"It is clear that our work requires an evaluation of the possible involvement of clans of the 'Ndrangheta," the Calabrian-based organized crime syndicate, stated Bombardieri, who is leading the migration investigation.