Thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Asia are being smuggled into Europe on board luxury yachts.
Ukranian traffickers are behind the multi-million dollar scheme, which more than 2,000 immigrants are believed to have taken advantage of since January 2016.
The immigrants usually begin their journey in Izmir, western Turkey, where they board yachts normally used by tourists. The vessels then head for Malta or Sicily in a journey lasting 3-4 days.
Each passenger pays more than $7,000 to make the trip by yacht, but this method of transport is seen as a safer alternative to risking the journey in an old fishing boat for the cheaper price of about $2,500.
Thousands who have traveled in open boats, particularly from Libya, have drowned in recent years.
The numbers arriving by yacht are relatively small but confirm an extraordinary desire by immigrants to get to Europe in what is widely regarded as a crisis for the continent.
According to figures from the Italian authorities and European border agency Frontex, eight Ukrainian people-smugglers have been arrested in Sicily in the past month after their yachts were intercepted by the Italian coastguard. Six others were arrested in Malta and Crete. Each vessel had been carrying about 30 immigrants from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Iraq.
This followed the arrest last year of 42 Ukrainians on suspicion of smuggling people from Turkey and Greece to Italy, according to Frontex.
“This is an important new route from Turkey,” said Carlo Parini, head of Gicic, an Italian government taskforce that combats human trafficking in Sicily, where 10,000 migrants have already arrived this year.
He also told the Sunday Times of London: “It is a very well developed smuggling operation. But we know their routes, we know the ways they work. We are very good at catching them.”
A deal between Turkey and the European Union signed last year was supposed to stop refugees arriving from the Middle East but Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, estimates traffickers have scooped at least $9 million in the past two years.