RUSSIA/UKRAINE: According to NGOs, smugglers are hiring scores of Russian residents to take the place of Ukrainian sailors as the captains of boats transporting migrants from Turkey to Italy.
At least 14 Russian nationals have been detained by the Italian police on suspicion of transporting asylum seekers illegally since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
A criminal network of Turkish smugglers developed the route from Turkey to Italy as an alternative to the long overland route across the Balkans to the EU, partially in response to pushback.
These smugglers often use small, swift yachts that are most frequently stolen or rented. In 2021, almost 11,000 migrants traveled from the Turkish ports of Izmir, Bodrum, and Anakkale to the Italian provinces of Puglia, Calabria, and Sicily.
At first, the traffickers almost exclusively hired Ukrainian skippers, many of whom had left the nation to avoid being drafted into service during the conflict in Donbas between Russian-backed separatists.
However, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, fewer Ukrainians are being recruited by Turkish traffickers.
Instead, Turkish gangs have started teaching asylum seekers to operate boats, enlist Turkish sailors, and employ a growing number of people from Russia and other former Soviet countries.
A sailboat carrying roughly 100 migrants capsized in May 2022 off the coast of Siderno, Calabria. Both of the victims, who were assumed to be the ship’s pilots, were Russian citizens.
Three Russians who carried over 100 migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq to the coast of Sicily in November resulted in the most recent arrest.
The sailings were being carried out by “a well-organized Turkish criminal network that uses expensive boats, either stolen or rented,” according to Sabrina Gambino, the head of the Sicilian prosecutor’s office in Syracuse.
The boat captains could spend up to 15 years in prison if found guilty.
According to charities and attorneys, the majority of Russians detained in Italian prisons assert that they had to flee their country to avoid military service and that they had refused to fight in Ukraine.