Dhe Italian authorities have broken up a ring of smugglers in Sicily after almost three years of investigations. As the police in Caltanissetta in central Sicily announced on Thursday, twelve arrest warrants were executed during raids on the Mediterranean island and on the mainland and a further eight people were placed under house arrest. The eleven Tunisians and seven Italians are accused of encouraging illegal immigration and forming a criminal organization. The band was headed by a Tunisian couple operating out of Sicily.
According to the investigators, the trafficking ring operated a kind of ferry business with speedboats between the south coast of Sicily and the north-east coast of Tunisia. For the crossing, which usually took four hours, the North African migrants had to pay between 3,000 and 5,000 euros in cash before leaving Tunisia.
Depending on the size of the inflatable boats, which usually have two outboard motors, ten to 30 people could be transported. According to the investigators, the smugglers collected between 30,000 and 70,000 euros per crossing. Police and coastguards tracked down the tugboat ring in Gela Harbor in February 2019 after the remains of a sunken speedboat were found there.
Upon arrival, the Italian members of the smuggling ring in the town of Niscemi north of Gela used bogus employment contracts to ensure that the migrants were declared legal workers. Tapped telephone conversations revealed that part of the smuggling ring’s “business model” was to throw migrants overboard “mare aperto” (on the high seas) in the event of problems such as the failure of the outboard motors. The investigators had given the access on Thursday the name “Operazione Mare Aperto”.
EU Internal Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson has pledged support to Italy in the fight against illegal migration across the central Mediterranean. We are “ready to provide support and assistance in this situation,” Johansson said in Brussels on Wednesday. Johansson also met with new Italian interior minister Matteo Piantedosi at the meeting of interior ministers of the G-7 countries in Hesse on Thursday. In a speech to Parliament in Rome on Wednesday, Piantedosi complained that the presence of private rescue ships off the coast of North Africa was an attraction factor for migrant flows, thereby promoting illegal migration across the Mediterranean organized by gangs of smugglers. Italy will fulfill its humanitarian obligation to take in refugees, but it must also be clear “that you cannot enter Italy illegally”.
Piantedosi complained that the system for the voluntary redistribution of migrants within the EU was not working. So far this year, only 117 refugees have been taken in by Italy, although 13 EU countries have committed to take in a total of 8,000 people. Since the beginning of the year, more than 93,000 illegal migrants have reached Italy’s shores. 11,900 of them were brought to Italy by private ships after rescue operations off the coasts of Libya and Tunisia.