People smugglers are apparently specifically recruiting Russian ship captains to steer refugee boats from Turkey to Italy. This emerges from a report by the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) "Borderline Europe" and "Arci Porco Rosso".
According to this, at least 14 Russian citizens have been arrested in Italy for illegally transporting asylum seekers since Russia's attack on Ukraine - twice as many as in the previous year.
The route from Turkey to Italy was set up by a criminal network of Turkish smugglers as an alternative to the long overland Balkan route to the EU, partly in response to illegal pushbacks. About 11,000 migrants arrived on the Italian coasts of Puglia, Calabria and Sicily in 2021 from the Turkish ports of Izmir, Bodrum and Çanakkale.
Ironically, the Russian skippers are now replacing captains from Ukraine of all people. For years, Turkish smuggling organizations have apparently been specifically recruiting Ukrainian citizens to steer refugee boats to Europe. Often these probably came from the Donbas regions and fled their homeland to avoid military service in the war against the separatists supported by Russia.
However, since the Russian invasion last February, it has not been easy for Ukrainian men to leave the country. Accordingly, the number of Ukrainians recruited by Turkish smugglers has declined.
"Ukrainians were fundamental to the arrival of people leaving Turkey as they are skilled seafarers who know how to steer a boat," the report said. "With the outbreak of war, Ukrainian men were prevented from leaving their country, which was undoubtedly a key factor in the reduced availability of Ukrainian skippers."
The trafficking gangs tried to solve this "lack of skilled workers" in several ways, but none of them was successful. Neither the attempt to train refugees to become captains, nor the efforts to recruit enough skippers in Turkey to plug the holes left by the Ukrainians.
Thus, the smugglers would have focused on another group of people who share a similar fate as the Ukrainians. They recruited more and more people from the former Soviet republics and especially from Russia, who had fled the country just before the partial mobilization of the Russian armed forces.
In the past, some Russian nationals have been recruited for this job by smugglers, but these were isolated cases, lawyer Giancarlo Liberati told the British "Guardian".
"After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and even a few months before the war, we saw that more and more Russian citizens were being recruited to pilot these migrant sailboats, and their involvement has become almost systematic."
In May 2022, a sailboat carrying around 100 migrants crashed into an old wharf in Siderno, Calabria. Two people were killed: they were Russian citizens who probably steered the ship.
The latest arrest came in November, when three Russians brought about 100 migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq to the coast of Sicily.
According to charities, most of the Russians held in Italian prisons claim that they had to flee their country to avoid military service and that they refused to fight in Ukraine.
The skippers take a high risk in their work. If convicted, they face up to 15 years in prison.
Sabrina Gambino, the head of the Sicilian prosecutor's office in Syracuse, told the British newspaper that "a well-organized Turkish criminal network allegedly using stolen or rented luxury boats" was behind the crossings.
"A Russian citizen being held in a prison wrote us a letter explaining that he had to flee Russia to escape the war, but that he, along with another refugee from Russia, was a people smuggler upon his arrival arrested," said Richard Braude, an activist with Arci Porco Rosso.
Ilnar Sadrutdinov, a Russian citizen from the Tatarstan region who was arrested in early 2022 for piloting a boat carrying dozens of asylum seekers from Turkey to Calabria, said in a defense letter presented to the court that he had left Russia because he was not able to want to take up arms.
Despite the increase in Russian smugglers, most of the skippers arrested on this route are still from Egypt and Turkey.
In recent years, NGOs and human rights organizations have pointed out that Italy has a policy of criminalizing boaters and filling its prisons with innocent men who are being used as scapegoats.
According to information from aid organizations, the boat drivers themselves are very often refugees or people without job alternatives who have been cheated by smugglers.
Quellen: Borderline Europe, Arci Porco Rosso, The Guardian