Ezadeen is the name of the vessel found drifting in the Mediterranean, last Thursday and towed to land by the Icelandic Coast Guard’s offshore patrol vessel Týr. The ship carried 360 migrants, mainly from Syria. They had been locked in the ship’s hold. No crew was aboard. According to the Coast Guard’s news release, Ezadeen’s control equipment had been destroyed.
The captives had broken their way out of the ship’s hold. One of them used the maritime radio on board and told the Italian coastguard: “We are without crew. We are heading toward the Italian Coast and we have no one to steer.” At the time, Týr was the only patrol vessel on duty in the area.
Týr reached the ship four hours after the emergency signal. It brought the vessel to the Italian port of Corigliano Calabro, over 24 hours later, late Friday evening.
According to Frontex, the migrants were “visibly distressed but overall in good medical condition”. They were immediately provided with food, water and basic medical assistance. According to the BBC, by Sunday, passengers were in good condition and were being transferred to immigration centres and foster homes around Italy.
The drifting ship is the second such incident in a week: earlier last week, about 796, also mostly Syrian, migrants were rescued from another abandoned vessel, the Blue Sky M. That time, four people were found dead aboard. Everyone, however, seems to have survived the Ezadeen.
Approaching land, full-speed
Ezadeen, a fifty year old, 73 metre long vessel, is registered in Sierra Leone as a livestock freighter. Its crew had abandoned the ship, and left it drifting on autopilot, without notifying the passengers, which were left locked inside. Around 4 PM on New Year’s Day, Thursday, the vessel released an emergency signal, which was received by Týr. The vessel was approaching Italy’s coast at great speed, in bad weather, when the patrol vessel approached, around four hours later. Five Icelandic officers got on board and brought the ship under control. According to Halldór Nellet, Týr’s Captain, interviewed by RÚV, Ezadeen’s engine soon died, as its fuel had run out.
“When we approached the ship late last night,” Halldór said on Friday, “we were going to ask them to slow down so that we could board the ship, but those who responded didn’t know how to handle the equipment and couldn’t slow the ship down.” According to Captain Halldór Lennet, interviewed by Vísir, the ship’s controls were already broken, as well. The Coast Guard’s news release says that the control equipment had been damaged.
“So it was absolutely impossible to move between the two vessels, the weather being what it was and the ship sailing at full speed. So we asked the Italian Coast Guard to bring a helicopter, but shortly later the ship’s engine died. It was out of oil. All that was left to do at that point was to tow the ship, which we did.”
Halldór said that the people aboard were frightened and exhausted. The Icelandic officers were later joined by Italian officers, who then manned the vessel while it was towed by Týr.
Most, if not all, of the ship’s passengers, which include men, women and children, come from Syria. According to RÚV, some are from Kurdistan. Interviewed by The Guardian, Giovanna di Benedetto, Save the Children’s spokesperson in Italy, said that they had been without food and drink for five days. According to the BBC, Italian officers say that “the smugglers wore hoods and locked the migrants in the ship’s hold before apparently abandoning ship on a lifeboat.”
Each passenger had paid around US $ 5,000 for the passage, says the paper, which it says is three times the “going rate” for even more dangerous crossings from North Africa. The BBC quotes Luigi Liguori, police chief of Cosenza province, who says the migrants paid between $4,000 and $8,000 for the voyage. According to either estimate, the traffickers have made around or above $3 million for the voyage.
The Guardian’s John Hooper writes that, even if “perhaps an odd epithet to use”, the passengers “looked distinctly middle-class. A couple of the women standing with their husbands on the ship, watching it dock, might have been shopping in the nearest mall. A pale-faced young woman in a knitted woolly hat with earmuffs and drawstrings would not have looked out of place in a London or Paris antiques market.” Police chief Liguori, quoted by the BBC, makes a similar note: “We’ve noticed a change in the make-up of the Syrian refugees on board. They are socially well off. They wear better clothes and are also better organised and, if you allow me to, they are less desperate than the migrants we normally see.”
According to Frontex, cargo vessels such as Ezadeen have been deployed by “people smugglers” since summer 2014. The agency has registered fifteen incidents involving cargo ships since August that year. Most sources agree that this is a new development, and that migrants have until now mostly attempted to cross the Mediterranean on smaller boats.
Auðunn F. Kristinsson, the Icelandic Coast Guard’s operations co-ordinator, told Vísir that he had noticed the developments since November: “Until now, it has mainly been fishing boats. Then now, late November, early December, this wave of cargo vessels started.” He says that the ships are usually in very bad shape and thus of little monetary value: “There is no value in the ships themselves, they are ready for scrap or disposal.”
The BBC qutoes Izabella Cooper, a Frontex spokesperson, saying that the the route taken on these vessels, from Turkey, is longer than the route normally taken by smaller boats, from Lybia, and the fee higher.
The Coast Guard and Frontex
Since 2000, some 22,000 migrants have died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. In 2014, the number of deaths rose from around 1% to almost 2% of all those who attempt the journey. That year alone, nearly 3,500 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean, while 200,000 were rescued. The UNHCR has described it as the “world’s deadliest migrant route”.
Frontex is the Schengen Area’s external border patrol agency. November 2014, it launched the operation “Triton,” to replace Italy’s coast guard in patrolling migrant routes across the Mediterranean. At a € 2.9 million monthly budget, the operation is less extensive than the Italian coast guard’s prior operation Mare Nostrum. Týr is one of five patrol vessels involved, along with two smaller boats, two aircraft and one helicopter.
With a monthly budget of EUR 2,9 million the agency will coordinate the deployment of three open sea patrol vessels, two coastal patrol vessels, two coastal patrol boats, two aircraft, and one helicopter in the Central Mediterranean.
While all of Iceland’s fishing vessels stayed in port during the holidays, at the end of December, Týr was the only Icelandic vessel that remained at sea. Týr, employed for operations in the Mediterranean, at least partly due to the Coast Guard’s financial strains, has since December taken part in four rescue operations of this sort, rescuing, in total, 2,000 passengers.
Amnesty International is among those organisations who have blamed the EU’s asylum policies for migrants’ lives, risked and lost, saying: “Refugees must be provided with more ways to enter the EU safely and legally so that they are not forced to embark on perilous journeys in the first place.” In 2014, the organisation published a report titled: The Human Cost of Fortress Europe. The organisation holds that the cost of current restrictions on migration to Europe “in human lives and misery” is “incalculable and is being paid by some of the world’s most vulnerable people”.