How Migrants' Cellphones Help Unmask Smuggler Tactics
CATANIA — On the horizon, the Libyan coast is still visible — perhaps it's the area around Zuwarah along the border with Tunisia — suggesting that the small wooden boat carrying migrants across the Mediterranean departed in plain daylight.
Compared to the decrepit inflatable dinghies that often sink in these waters, this one is barely crowded. One of the passengers smiles in the knowledge that the long and treacherous voyage will ultimately lead to a better life abroad. Some wear unconvincing life jackets. And the youngest migrants hide in the boat's small bilge. There is little conversation: only some prayers, the roar of the motor, and the sound of the waves.
All of this information is gleaned from a cellphone video taken by one of the refugees, probably in the dramatic days around Easter, when ships operated by the Italian Coast Guard and Navy, the European Union border agency Frontex, and NGOs saved some 8,300 people in dozens of rescue missions.
With these kinds of videos and photographs, migrants inadvertently document information that could be vital to Italian authorities investigating migrant smuggling across the Mediterranean. The videos also provide evidence supporting migrants' own stories about their experiences crossing from Libya to Italy.
Prosecutors and investigators say things have changed since 2016, the worst year on record, when nearly 5,100 migrants died at sea. They say traffickers seem to have increased their profits while reducing their risks. For migrants, though, the risks have only risen.
One of the new techniques being employed by the traffickers, as the video suggests, is to send a Jet Ski alongside the migrants to guide them toward rescue ships that operate outside Libyan waters. The drivers then use the Jet Ski to abandon ship.
Migrants mostly film videos to send to friends and relatives living in Europe, to let them know they're on their way. At migrant reception centers, authorities sometimes seize videos that provide information for an investigation. In some cases migrants refuse to show the videos, or succeed in hiding them from the police.
This video was shot on a particularly clear and sunny day. The water is calm. The trip from Libya is often much more dangerous, and this voyage seems particularly untroubled. When the owner of the cellphone turns the camera towards the man steering the boat he's told to stop filming. A Jet Ski pulls up alongside and the trafficker steering the boat disembarks, leaving the migrants alone at the helm. The Jet Ski returns to Libya as the boat continues onwards to its destination.
Soon enough the migrants will be intercepted and rescued by a ship run by the French organizations SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders. Some migrants say that being rescued by an NGO ship marks the end of their difficult journey, whereas being intercepted by military vessels would extend their troubles.
The phone starts filming again and reveals more details about the dangerous voyage between Libya and Italy. Onboard the rescue ship the sea is no longer a source of fear, and migrants sing and celebrate on the deck with new clothes and blankets on their shoulders. Now they eagerly wait to dock at a port in southern Italy, on the mainland, ready to seize the new life that awaits them in Europe.