‘Ghost ship’ spurs call for European action on migrants

The abandoned ships mark the rise of a new trend among smugglers to exploit desperate people, refugees

A cargo ship abandoned by its crew with more than 350 Syrians on board has prompted urgent calls for European nations to open up legal alternatives to dangerous sea crossings for refugees.

The Ezadeen, a vessel licensed only to carry livestock, was rescued and towed to Italy on Saturday after a coastguard helicopter spotted the ship drifting in rough seas about 40 miles from the country’s coast. The ship and passengers, which included pregnant women and 62 children, had been left on course to crash into the Italian border.

The rescue comes just days after 800, mostly Syrian, immigrants were rescued from another ‘ghost ship’, deserted by traffickers who make money by promising to carry refugees to Europe.

The abandoned ships mark the rise of a new trend among smugglers to exploit desperate people that cannot be ignored by European governments, said Vincent Cochetel, bureau director at UNHCR Europe.

“We need urgent European concerted action in the Mediterranean Sea, increasing efforts to rescue people at sea and stepping up efforts to provide legal alternatives to dangerous voyages,” he said.

Civil war in Syria spurred a surge in the number of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean last year, with more than 165,000 making the journey; a record high. Thousands died in the attempt, with the UN refugee agency last month describing the crossing as “the most lethal route in the world”.

Traffickers used to rely on small boats to make the crossing, but are increasingly using cargo ships to ferry larger groups of migrants from ports in the Middle East and Africa, exploiting new routes in an attempt to avoid detection.

Italy recently phased out its Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) search-and-rescue operation on the Mediterranean, which patrolled the waters and rescued migrant boats in distress. It was replaced by a smaller EU-backed operation, but UN officials have warned that further efforts are needed to protect migrants.

“The use of larger cargo ships is a new trend, but it is part of an ongoing and worrying situation that can no longer be ignored by European governments,” said Cochetel. “Without safer ways for refugees to find safety in Europe, we won’t be able to reduce the multiple risks and dangers posed by these movements at sea.”