Gangs tip off Italians about migrant tide sailing their way
Trafficking gangs sending migrants on perilous journeys across the Mediterranean are tipping off Italian officials in advance so that their boats can be picked up by coastguard and naval vessels.
Yesterday, the United Nations urged European countries to increase search and rescue operations, following the deaths of more than 400 migrants on Sunday when their ramshackle, overloaded boat capsized off the coast of Libya.
Survivors who were brought to Italy told how the stricken ship was packed with people hoping to start a new life. The latest disaster has added further heat to rows over the surge in boat arrivals from north Africa.
The UN refugee agency has said not enough is being done to save the lives of the rising number of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
The Italian coastguard revealed that they had managed to rescue 145 on the sunken vessel, while nine bodies were also recovered.
But Commander Filippo Marini, coastguard spokesman, said that they had not found any more "survivors or anything else which would indicate more victims".
He said he could not rule out that more lives had been lost, and said the kind of vessel from which the 145 people were rescued usually carried many more people.
Meanwhile, it was revealed the trafficking gangs have become so confident that their boats will be picked up that they even reduce the amount of fuel each vessel has before it sets out from north Africa, a former manager in the UK Immigration Service has revealed.
The disclosure from Graham Leese, who was also a special adviser to Frontex, the European Union's border control force, will add to concerns that "search and rescue" operations in the Mediterranean are encouraging traffickers by making their deadly trade easier.
Britain opposes moves to increase search and rescue operations, arguing that Operation Mare Nostrum, a major Italian search and rescue mission that ran until last year, simply tempted more migrants into risking their lives.
Mr Leese backed that stance, saying that during Mare Nostrum, smugglers in Libya had become aware that there were extra rescue vessels on the seas and had taken advantage. "My understanding is that the facilitators are often phoning up the Italian authorities in advance and saying that boats are on their way," said Mr Leese, who now works as a consultant on border and immigration issues.
"They are not putting as much fuel in the boats as they usually do because they expect them to be picked up.
"A lot of the migrants are interviewed afterwards, and this is what they say, and my professional contacts also say it. We have started to hear about it since Mare Nostrum was launched, when those on the Libyan side became aware that there were more boats being deployed to rescue people."
Mr Leese's comments will add to the growing debate over how to respond to the increasing numbers of migrants attempting to enter Europe via the Mediterranean.
Numbers have risen dramatically in the past two years because of the deteriorating security picture in Libya, the smugglers' main operating base.
Italy says more than 15,000 migrants have arrived this year already and it is expecting numbers to soar in the coming months as the summer weather makes boat crossings easier.
The EU-funded Operation Mare Nostrum was launched in October 2013, in response to a previous tragedy in which 350 migrants drowned within sight of the Italian island of Lampedusa. It rescued more than 100,000 refugees from the sea, but was discontinued last September after concerns about the pounds €8m-a-month cost and fears that it was encouraging illegal immigration.
The replacement service, Operation Triton, has fewer vessels and limits itself to European territorial waters rather than ranging out to near the Libyan coast.
Yesterday, Laurens Jolles, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the latest drownings showed the need for a "strengthened and efficient capacity to carry out rescue". He dismissed the possibility that it would make the problem worse, describing it as "an argument used by those who want to prevent anyone coming in from Europe".
However, Mr Leese disagreed. "The UN's idea that one is obliged morally to take in people coming across in boats is a dangerous one because you are encouraging the very process that you are seeking to stop. Some of these people are desperate, but a good proportion are economic migrants, and either way, you shouldn't be encouraging people to risk their lives in a boat."