Italian authorities have been forced to intervene after a livestock cargo ship — apparently abandoned by its crew — was found drifting in rough seas this morning with up to 450 migrants on board.
The migrants are believed to be predominantly Syrian, the flag on the ship is of Sierra Leone, and the boat — named Ezadeen — is believed to have traveled from Turkey.
AFP reported the navy as saying that six coastguard officers were lowered onto the deck from a helicopter. The boat was floating about 25 miles off Crotone, off Italy's south-eastern coast.
This footage is described as showing Italian coast guard personnel being winched onto the deck of the Ezadeen.
The coast guard members apparently acted after hearing from a passenger via radio. "We know that it left from a Turkish port and was abandoned by its crew," spokesman Filippo Marini told SkyTG24 television.
"When we hailed the ship to ask about its status, a migrant woman responded, saying, 'We are alone and we have no one to help us.'"
On Wednesday, authorities rescued a boat carrying around 770 Syrian refugees. This figure included around 60 children, and two pregnant women. The Blue Sky M — which was registered in Moldova — had been abandoned on autopilot, and was headed towards likely disaster on the rocky shoreline.
However, the true facts may be different. Italian police later arrested four men they claimed were the crew of the ship, saying that they had not actually abandoned it, as previously believed, but instead mingled with the passengers in the hopes of avoiding prosecution. These men are also thought to be Syrian.
Human smugglers can charge thousands of dollars by promising desperate people passage to Europe. Those who survive the trip often arrive in urgent need of medical care, suffering the effects of malnutrition, disease, and hypothermia.
Italy ended Operation Mare Nostrum — its active migrant search and rescue mission — in October 2014, a move which was criticized for putting "thousands at risk." Mare Nostrum had rescued over 100,000 people, yet it also cost the country $137 million, leading Italy to call for other European countries to contribute more towards tackling the issue.
UNHCR spokesperson Laura Padoan told VICE News that the ending of Mare Nostrum has undoubtedly had an impact. "People are still desperate, they will still risk their lives making dangerous journeys and sadly it could mean that many people will pay the ultimate price."
She said that though the Italian coast guard managed to intervene in the latest incidents, "a Europe-wide response is needed not just in terms of a search-and-rescue effort but also in providing legal alternatives to protect people from the risks of travelling with smugglers and traffickers."
Padoan also said that UNHCR has been hearing reports that smugglers are now using large cargo ships much more than they previously did, a move which allows them to charge migrants higher sums for passage because they can claim that the ships are "safer" than smaller vessels.
She added that the "tactic of abandoning ships by smugglers is alarming."
In a speech given by Pope Francis at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in November, the Church leader also asked for a "united" response to the problem of migration, a lack of which, he claimed, would lead to the Mediterranean becoming a "vast migrant cemetery."
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