Italian police said on Thursday they had arrested 13 people and dismantled an international crime gang that smuggled small groups of migrants from Greece to Italy aboard yachts.
The so-called “ghost boats” often avoid detection by coastguard patrols, allowing their passengers to vanish as soon as they reach land, escaping police registration.
Over the past year, the Italo-Greek organisation brought more than 100 people to Italy’s southern shores, demanding 6,000 euros each for the trip, police said.
The Greek side of the operation sought out clients in Turkey, which hosts millions of refugees in overcrowded camps.
After crossing the Aegean Sea, the migrants, mainly from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, were taken to Athens and then put on small boats provided by the Italians for the final leg of their trip.
“Sometimes payments were made through electronic systems, but we have also found bags with thousands of euros inside,” police lieutenant Francesco Di Sabato told Reuters, adding that the organisation raised around 600,000 euros over the last year.
Most trips to Italy started from the island of Corfu, where groups of up to 20 people were told to travel hidden below deck. They were all left on the Puglia coast, in Italy’s heel.
About 11,000 migrants have reached Italy by boat so far this year, some 8,000 arriving without the need of any help from the coastguard or NGO charity ships that patrol the Mediterranean, interior ministry data shows.
Most set sail from North Africa, but a regular trickle of boats have also arrived from Greece.