A cargo ship abandoned by its crew with 359 Syrian refugees on board was towed ashore in Italy on Saturday in the second such rescue this week, prompting calls for stronger European Union action in the face of new tactics by human traffickers.
The Ezadeen, a Sierra-Leone-flagged vessel that had set sail from Turkey, docked in the southern Italian port of Corigliano Calabro. The passengers, including 62 minors, were in good condition and were being transferred to immigration centers and foster homes across Italy, coastguard and police officials said.
The decrepit vessel, licensed only to carry livestock, was strewn with steel containers, broken chairs, piles of garbage bags, empty gasoline tanks and scattered clothes and belongings.
On Wednesday, about 800 mostly Syrian migrants were rescued from another 'ghost ship', the Moldovan-flagged Blue Sky M. It too was abandoned at sea, highlighting a new ploy by traffickers who make money by promising refugees a transfer to Europe.
Civil war in Syria swelled the number of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean last year, with some 160,000 seaborne migrants arriving in Italy as of the end of November. Thousands of others drowned.
Most used to cross in small boats. But in recent months smugglers have increasingly used cargo ships to ferry large groups from ports in Turkey or Egypt, according to Italian and United Nations officials.
"Smugglers are finding new routes to Europe and are employing new methods in order to exploit desperate people," said Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU Commissioner for Migration. "These events underscore the need for decisive and coordinated EU-wide action."
He said the European Union was preparing a new migration plan to be presented "in due course", and which would make the fight against smugglers a priority.
But efforts have been hampered by the sheer weight of migrant numbers, the cost of sea patrols and arguments within the EU over how to share the burden.
Italy recently phased out its expensive Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) search-and-rescue operation on the Mediterranean. It was replaced by a smaller EU joint mission, but Italian politicians and UN officials say further efforts are needed.
"Europe needs to wake up and make trafficking a priority," said Sergio Divina, a politician from the anti-immigration Northern League party.
The latest cases highlight the use of 'flags of convenience' for trafficking at sea. The head of Sierra Leone's Maritime Administration told Reuters that the African nation was planning to carry out a review of all vessels registered there.
Alhaji Wuror Jalloh said his country had suspended the license of the Ezadeen, which had been registered in 2010 to German owners "just to carry livestock and not to transport human beings."
The rescue began on Friday when a coast guard helicopter spotted the ship drifting in rough seas about 40 miles from Italy's southern coast. The helicopter landed on the ship and officials began navigating it to land.
A police official, Paola Fabris, said Italian authorities believed the crew abandoned the ship using lifeboats after setting the vessel on autopilot. Prosecutors impounded it on arrival as part of their investigation.