People-smugglers are recruiting dozens of Russian citizens to replace Ukrainian sailors captaining boats carrying migrants from Turkey to Italy, NGOs have claimed.
Since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine at least 14 Russian nationals have been arrested by the Italian police on charges of illegally transporting asylum seekers.
A report by the Italian non-governmental organisation Arci Porco Rosso and the nonprofit Borderline Europe “noted a doubling in the number of arrests of Russian citizens” accused of piloting the vessels compared to the previous year, as well as many more arrests of ‘‘Syrians, Bengalis, and even people from landlocked countries, such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan’’.
The Turkey to Italy route was established by a criminal network of Turkish smugglers as an alternative to the long Balkans overland route to the EU, in part in response to pushbacks, typically using small fast yachts, most often stolen or rented. 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.
Initially the smugglers almost exclusively recruited Ukrainian skippers, many of whom had fled the country in order to escape military service during the war against Russian-backed separatists in Donbas. But since the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the number of Ukrainians recruited by Turkish smugglers has been decreasing.
“Ukrainians have been fundamental for the arrival of people departing from Turkey, being expert sailors who know how to handle a boat,” the report says. “With the outbreak of the war, Ukrainian men have been blocked from leaving their country, which has undoubtedly been a determining factor in the diminished availability of Ukrainian skippers.”
Turkish gangs have instead begun training asylum seekers to pilot boats, recruiting Turkish sailors and hiring ever-increasing numbers of Russian citizens and others from former Soviet republics.
“In the past, some Russian citizens had been recruited by smugglers for this job, but these were mostly isolated cases,” said lawyer Giancarlo Liberati. “After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and actually a few months before the war, we noticed an increase of Russian citizens recruited to pilot these sailing boats carrying migrants, and their involvement has become almost systematic.”
In May 2022, a sailboat carrying about 100 migrants crashed into an old wharf in Siderno, Calabria. Two people died in the incident: they were both Russian citizens believed to have piloted the vessel.
The most recent arrest was in November, when three Russians brought about 100 migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq to the coast of Sicily.
Sabrina Gambino, the head of the Sicilian prosecutor’s office in Syracuse, said “a well-organised Turkish criminal network that uses luxury boats, allegedly stolen or rented” was behind the sailings.
If sentenced, the pilots of migrants boats risk up to 15 years in jail.
Charities and lawyers say a majority of Russians currently held in Italian prisons claim they had to escape from their country to flee military service and had refused to fight in Ukraine.
“A Russian citizen detained in a prison wrote a letter to us saying he had to flee Russia to escape the war, but that together with another refugee from Russia was arrested as a people-smuggler on arrival,” says Richard Braude, an activist with Arci Porco Rosso.
A defence brief presented in court for a Russian citizen, Ilnar Sadrutdinov, a resident of the Tatarstan region arrested in early 2022 for piloting a boat carrying dozens of asylum seekers from Turkey to Calabria, said he had left Russia because he would not take up arms.
“I am very sorry that Putin and the people who supported him have begun the seizure of Ukraine,” he said, according to a document seen by the Guardian. “Please don’t send me back to Russia, because now those who refuse to fight are imprisoned. My aunt is married to a Ukrainian, my sister is married to a Ukrainian. Ukraine is a sister nation for me.”
He claimed he was unaware of the penalties for people-smuggling. “They told me that by accepting this job I could save people and earn money,” Sadrutdinov said. “If I had known I was going to prison, even for just a year, I never would have taken the job.”
The Guardian could not independently verify his claims.
The chief prosecutor of Crotone, Giuseppe Capoccia, said the skippers recruited by the Turkish networks “had been hired for this specific role” and that in some cases they “were in possession of a tourist visa”.
“They are desperate sailors looking for any job to make some money,” he added.
Despite the increase in Russian smugglers, the largest number of skippers arrested for this route come from Egypt and Turkey.
In recent years, charities and human rights associations have highlighted how Italy has conducted a policy of criminalising boat drivers, filling its prisons with innocent men used as scapegoats.
According to aid workers and lawyers, migrant boat skippers are very often also refugees or people with no job alternatives who have been deceived by smugglers.
“Many of the arrests will have been of people who never steered a boat in their life,’’ says Sara Traylor, an activist for Arci Porco Rosso. “We have to remember how long and risky these journeys are – and they are made even more dangerous by attempts to criminalise them. If the people driving a boat don’t have any experience, this can lead to tragedies, as we are seeing.”