In January, two merchant ships drew the world’s attention for an unusual and worrying reason: their crews had abandoned them in the Mediterranean Sea after turning on the vessels' autopilot and setting them on a course for the southern coast of Europe.
Both ships carried refugees fleeing war-torn parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Tragedy was averted in each case when coastal authorities rescued the refugees before the vessels could run aground or sink.
Since then the situation has grown worse as the MENA refugee population grows, many are crowding into vessels headed across the Mediterranean—221,300 in 2014 alone, according to the European Union agency Frontex. Human smugglers are now using merchant ships to cram hundreds of migrants together in a single vessel.
Can such ships be monitored and intercepted before they pose a danger to themselves or others? IHS Maritime and Trade’s AISLive tracking tool is capable of following ships’ movements and building historical data of earlier movements. Trackers checking the accuracy of transmitted data can spot errors such as estimated arrival times that fail to reflect the ship’s intended voyage, but they cannot discern the intent of ship operators.
In the case of the two ships in question, both had been purchased by Syrian nationals in December 2014 with the intent of using them for a one-way smuggling operation. So as not to arouse suspicion, while en route the ships continued to transmit automated identification system signals (it is a maritime offense not to transmit data and switching off signals attracts attention).
Indeed, the ships’ initial movements were without incident. Former livestock carrier Ezadeen, flying the Sierra Leone flag, had crossed from the Syrian port of Tartous to an anchorage off Famagusta. Earlier, general cargo ship Blue Sky M, registered in Moldova, sailed from Turkey to Croatia.
The tracks of Blue Sky M and Ezadeen then showed sudden and sinister developments. Blue Sky M turned west near Corfu and headed for Italy. The seafarers had abandoned the ship, leaving 800 migrants to the mercy of the seas before their rescue.
Ezadeen had moved from its anchorage to Mersin in southern Turkey, then on to Antalya and through the Aegean Sea toward Italy. The crew disembarked near Kefalonia, leaving 360 migrants heading for the coast with no seafarers aboard. The ship was intercepted and towed to shore by an Icelandic vessel that is part of Frontex.
As the Italian navy scales back the scope of its rescue operations, the world’s most dangerous migration route—3,400 migrants perished at sea in 2014—could become deadlier. By identifying and analyzing ships likely to be used in this activity—many of them small, old merchant ships flagged in third-tier registers—IHS Maritime and Trade can alert border agencies in the hope of averting tragedy.
Richard Clayton is chief maritime analyst, IHS Maritime and Trade