Ghost boats from Tunisia bring an increasing number of migrants to Italy

UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (OBSERVATORY) — Smugglers are transporting migrants across the Mediterranean from Tunisia instead of Libya without discovering them, an Italian public prosecutor warned in Agrigento on Saturday.

The number of arrivals has also risen as the opportunity to reach Europe ends before the winter season, ahead of a meeting of interior ministers to discuss Malta’s controversial immigration dossier on Monday.

According to the newspaper “La Repubblica” that among the more than 6,620 people who have arrived in Italy since the beginning of this year, about 5500 of these independently without discovering them and without the need for help.

“We are beginning to see people not only from Tunisia but also from sub-Saharan Africa on boats arriving independently,” Agrigento prosecutor Salvatore Villa said in an interview with Stampa newspaper.

“We believe that there are new routes, no longer depart from Libya, but from Tunisia, where crossing the sea is easier because the distance is shorter and can be traversed by small boats with the least risk.”

He likened the flights to “business class” as they used fast boats to travel the distance, which is relatively short and takes between 14 and 16 hours.

– Change in strategy –

The number of arrivals in Italy increased in September from the same month last year, according to data from the Interior Ministry.

Some 108 asylum seekers arrived in Lampedusa on Friday night on two boats, one of which was able to reach the mainland unaided.

Experts point out that the growing number of arrivals has nothing to do with Rome’s shift from a far-right anti-immigrant government that has closed Italian ports to pro-European ones hoping to reach an agreement on the distribution of new arrivals to EU countries.

Matteo Villa of the Institute for International Political Studies also pointed to the absence of humanitarian ships rescuing migrants at sea, whose presence is believed to be an encouraging factor for others to take the journey.

He said the number of people who set out from Libya this month with a humanitarian ship roaming the search and rescue area was far fewer than those who tried to cross the area, even though no such ship was in place.

This leads observers and investigators to believe that the smugglers have changed their strategy.

The sea route from Libya is known for its gravity as the International Organization for Migration estimates that one in ten people die in the middle of the Mediterranean.

After European governments’ campaigns against rescue groups, only two ships remained in operation.

The Libyan coastguard has also intercepted an increasing number of migrant boats.

– Frames of trucks at night –

These factors may have prompted smugglers to choose Tunisia instead of Libya as a point of departure for migrants, and to use wooden boats instead of overcrowded rubber.

“It is now more than just groups of Tunisians who organize themselves and use small boats,” said Republika correspondent Alessandra Zinetti. “It is about powerful groups of Libyan and Central African smugglers.”

“Hundreds of migrants are being transported to shores on the border between Libya and Tunisia,” she said, adding that “truckloads of trucks are moving between Tunisia and Libya at night while the border authorities ignore them.”

Interior ministers from Finland, France, Germany, Italy and Malta meet in Valletta on Monday to try to set up an automatic system for the distribution of rescued migrants in the central Mediterranean.

But it may not include an agreement of this kind arriving aboard what has become known as “ghost” boats.


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