Karim El-Hamdi remembers vividly how he accidentally became a human trafficker. The 33-year-old Tunisian was in a coffee bar in Libya when someone came up to him and asked if he wanted to go to Italy. At first, the man organizing the voyage told Hamdi he would have to pay 1,000 Libyan dinars, or $825, for the trip, but then he asked Hamdi if he knew how to navigate a boat. When Hamdi said he did, the man offered him $1,500 to take the old wooden fishing boat to international waters where it was sure to be rescued by the Italian Navy, which operates a high-dollar mission called Mare Nostrum designed to save the lives of those at risk of dying at sea. El-Hamdi was told that he could make even more money by charging extra cash for simple amenities like food, water and lifejackets. Then he could either take the lifeboat and head back to Libya once the ship was out of Libyan waters or, if he preferred, “blend in” with the other migrants and stay in Italy. The worst that would happen, the man told him, was that he’d get sent back to Tunisia.
Whoever organized the trip was dead wrong. Hamdi was arrested in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo last weekend after the boat he was commandeering was picked up in international waters by the Italian navy. Under the program, navy officers monitor the ships leaving the North African coast and try to identify the motherships that pull the fishing boats out or the escape vessels used by traffickers like Hamdi before they have a chance to escape. Now Hamdi has agreed to cooperate with the Italian authorities by testifying about the intricate human-trafficking network in exchange for a shorter prison sentence. Hamdi’s confession, which was leaked to the press over the weekend, paints a horrific picture of what the thousands of migrants and asylum seekers endure trying to reach Europe in search of a better life.
Hamdi described how migrants pay between $1,000 and $2,500 for a spot on the dangerous vessels, which are all fishing boats put into retirement because they are no longer seaworthy. Everything else costs extra, following a detailed pricing scheme reminiscent of those used by low-cost airlines. The going rate for life jackets on board the dangerously rickety vessels tops $200, whether for men, women or children. Bottles of water and cans of tuna cost travelers upwards of $100, and the privilege to sit on the top deck, which Hamdi referred to as “first class” rather than being stuffed into the ship hull, called “third class,” costs an extra $200 to $300. Use of the Thuraya satellite phone costs as much as $300 for a few minutes and the cellphone number of secret pickup services that will smuggle migrants to the Italian border are available for several thousand dollars, depending on their final destination.
The traffickers also charge a supplement of around $1,500 for taking minors across the perilous sea without their parents. The children are not allowed to carry documents or those on the boat could face kidnapping charges. Other extras include around $150 for catheters for pregnant women, whose urine is considered poison to many of the men on the ships. They also charge up to $200 for blankets or rain gear. According to Hamdi, the pricing structure is a recent addition to the trafficking scheme, driven by the fact that Syrians escaping civil war can afford to pay for better services. “The Syrians buy everything,” he told investigators, according to the leaked documents. “That has pushed the traffickers to offer more.”
So far, 2014 is set to be a record year for migrants coming to Europe through Italy from Syria, Egypt and North African and sub-Saharan African countries. Since January, more than 43,000 people have reached Italian shores—an increase of 835 percent over the same period a year ago. Last weekend alone, 3,612 migrants from Syria and North Africa traveling in 11 rickety fishing boats like the one Hamdi navigated were rescued from the sea off Sicily.
The Mare Nostrum program, which is named after the Latin term the Romans used to describe the sea surrounding the Roman empire, costs the Italian government around $12 million a month, and is highly contested in Italy, where it is viewed as an expensive invitation to make the dangerous crossing. The program has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives and, for the first time in the history of the irregular migrant issue in Italy, resulted in the arrest of the traffickers, known as scafisti in Italy. More than 50 traffickers have been jailed since the program began last November.
But the program has far more critics than supporters, including Italy’s Association for Legal Studies on Immigration, which says there is a lack of transparency onboard the navy ships. “Ships in international waters are no place to carry out identity checks,” the group’s spokesperson, Silvia Canciani, told The Daily Beast. “Those checks should be done on land where migrants have clear rights to ask asylum.”
The government under Matteo Renzi has threatened to deduct some of the operating costs from its European Union contributions since virtually none of those who land on Italian shores intend to stay in the country. A spokesman for Renzi told The Daily Beast that Europe must do its share to shoulder the costs. “We will save lives and arrest the traffickers, but the Mediterranean is not ours alone,” Renzi says.
Italy’s Minister of Interior, Angelino Alfano, went one step further, threatening via Twitter to allow migrants and refugees to leave Italy and travel into Europe, which is against the European Union rules that clearly state the country of first entry is where the migrants must stay. “We’re ready to say ‘Go where you want to go,’” he tweeted, condemning Europe for not helping Italy pay the price of saving lives.
Still, the United Nations and other groups monitoring the refugee crisis warn the worst is yet to come. They estimate as many as 800,000 people are ready to risk their lives and make the trip across the seas in the coming summer months, traditionally “boat season” in the Mediterranean. But the United Nations denies that it is considering building processing centers on the North African coast to try to stem the flow, as was reported in the Guardian this week. Instead, it would like to see additional, strengthened search and rescue missions like Mare Nostrum put in place.
“It is essential to ensure that the long-established tradition of rescue at sea is upheld by all and that international maritime law is respected,” Melissa Fleming, UNHCR chief spokeswoman and head of communications and public relations, told The Daily Beast. “The Mare Nostrum operation is exemplary. It has rescued the lives of over 40,000 people—many fleeing from war and persecution.” Fleming says the UNHCR is actively seeking alternatives so people in need of international protection do not have to risk their lives on dangerous routes to Europe. “Such legal migration alternatives could include resettlement, humanitarian admission, and family reunion possibilities in EU countries.”
But until and unless that happens, traffickers like Hamdi and rescuers like the Italian navy will have plenty to do.