The Struggle To Track Shifting Mediterranean Migrant Routes

A top prosecutor in Sicily informed the UN in a recent report that so-called 'phantom landings' — vessels that reach the island undetected — are on the rise.

Migrant rescue ship Eleonore on Aug. 27
Migrant rescue ship Eleonore on Aug. 27
Fabio Albanese

AGRIGENTO — Together with the island of Lampedusa, Agrigento, a city and province on Sicily's Southern coast, is where the bulk of Mediterranean migrants have arrived in the past year.

Some are rescued in the middle of the sea en route from Libya and brought to Agrigento by NGOs and military ships. Others come from Tunisia on wooden boats: These are the so-called "autonomous landings," which can refer to vessels making it to port on their own, or those that are "hooked" and reeled in by either the Coast Guard or anti-smuggling ships from Italy's Financial Crimes division.

Then there are the "phantom landings," where vessels arrive on the beaches unchecked and the migrants — presumably with the help of criminal organizations — vanish without a trace.

For years now, the largest percentage of migrants landing on Italian coasts have been Tunisian. The Interior Ministry recorded 5,181 such individuals in 2018. So far this year, the numbers are down: 1,758 as of Sept. 20. But as Agrigento district attorney Salvatore Vella warns, the data on Tunisian migrants doesn't take into account the people who evade controls.

"There are now more migrants landing autonomously than those leaving from Libya and being recovered at sea," he explains.

Vella, who shares the top prosecutorial position with Luigi Pattronaggio, heads a number of sensitive investigations into migrant ships and trafficking, giving him a privileged vantage point from which to analyze the migration phenomenon. He says the phantom landings missing from official statistics stretch back to the summer of 2017, lasting throughout all the different governments since then. That being said, the summer of 2019 brought something new.

Human traffickers adapt their business methods as conditions fluctuate.

"We're delving into a new phenomenon," says Vella, who presented the UN with a report on migrant trafficking this month. "On the boats landing autonomously we're starting to see not only Tunisians but also sub-Saharan Africans."

"While understanding what's going on is always tough," he adds, "we think it's the result of new migration routes that are no longer passing through Libya but through Tunisia, because the sea crossing from there is shorter, less risky, and can be done with small boats."

Vella's statements confirm a well-known fact: Human traffickers adapt their business methods as conditions fluctuate. If previously it was more profitable to buy inflatable dinghies over the Internet from Asian countries (for between $500 and $2,000 — the crossing price for one or two migrants), it's possible that traffickers are now opting again for wooden boats.

The ghost of migrant boats present — Photo: Socrates Baltagiannis/ZUMA

The reason is twofold: military ships no longer rescue at sea, and almost all ships owned by NGOs are sequestered in the ports of Sicily and Malta.

A classic method is to use "motherships' — old fishing vessels manned by five or six expert smugglers — followed by a smaller attached boat onto which some 60 or 70 migrants are transferred as Italian territorial waters draw near. At this point, two of the smugglers are given instructions to lead the small boat to shore while the remaining smugglers launch a retreat on the precious mothership without any fear of arrest.

"But today's autonomous and phantom landings don't seem to be tied to motherships," Vella notes. "We're now dealing with isolated little vessels that hold a few dozen people who make the 14 to 16-hour crossing from Tunisia alone."

The fight against smugglers must take place "on the mainland, not at sea".

In his report to the UN, the prosecutor termed this type of crossing "business class travel," because of how relatively quickly the trips are made. He explains that the crossings are organized by Tunisians or Egyptians, with landings on the Sicilian coast that are "far from residential areas and roads."

"The continually changing methods of trafficking organizations requires a corresponding change in enforcement strategies employed by police," Vella argues. The fight against smugglers must take place "on the mainland, not at sea," he says. "Naval blockades are difficult to implement and of little use⁠— traffickers never stay on our side of the Mediterranean, where we can only catch "small fish.""

In his report, Vella also recommends creating a common database between countries of departure and arrival, introducing liaison officers with countries of departure, and exchanging information between states and NGOs to determine "if they are organizations that are really trying to saving migrants, or if they have illegal agreements with traffickers."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!