Authorities have cracked down on refugees and migrants leaving Turkey in flimsy inflatable boats, but Ukrainian yachtsmen have proved willing to smuggle to Italy Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians and others who have the means and the money.
The number of migrants in that category is small, compared with the 181,000 mostly sub-Saharan Africans who risked crossing from Libya and Egypt to Sicily last year. Hundreds died nearly every week.
However, the richer route from Turkish shores to southern Italy — occasionally on elegant wood and fiberglass sailboats — is now booming, Italian authorities say.
“Last November, we arrested a Ukrainian skipper for the second time and I recognized him,” Carlo Parini, the police chief inspector against illegal immigration in Syracuse, a Sicilian port city, told the New York Times. “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?”
In 2015, 111 migrants cruised to Sicilian shores aboard sailboats; in 2016, 710 did so. Last year the route started gaining steam. Much international police work will be needed to catch up with the smugglers, Italian officials said.
To avoid routine checks, the Times reported, sailors navigate the “contiguous zone,” the continuous maritime area that extends beyond any country’s territorial waters. The sailors often have several national flags — some fake, some not — that they can raise according to the country they are approaching.
Typically they at least have a Turkish, a Greek and an American flag. Many boats 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 Parini’s team.
“It is likely that the organization is made up of Turks who use professional Ukrainian skippers, traditionally skilled, for the crossing,” Francesco Paolo Giordano, the chief prosecutor in Syracuse, who is in charge of the investigations, told the Times. “But it is still too early to say.”
When they are caught, the skippers have been charged with aiding and abetting illegal immigration. In Italy, that is a crime punishable by at least four years in prison. The court in Syracuse is trying 21 skippers.
Many of them have argued that they were forced to pilot the boats out of economic necessity or by Turkish criminals who threatened their families in Ukraine.
Some bargain their sentences down to a few months. Others are allowed to leave prison early for good conduct. For some, it is a price worth paying in a lucrative trade.