By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Human smuggling gangs are increasingly hiring Ukrainian sailors to captain yachts and other boats for migrants willing to pay up to $8,000 for safe passage to Europe, Italian police said on Wednesday, after the arrest of two suspected traffickers.
On Tuesday, Italian police arrested two Ukrainians accused of trying to smuggle 50 Pakistani men to Italy on a 12-meter sail boat, the latest incident involving professional Ukrainian sailors and a luxury vessel, a senior police official said.
"It's a growing phenomenon," said the official, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to journalists.
Italy is on the frontline of Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War Two. More than 93,000 people have reached its shores so far this year, according to the Interior Ministry.
Most migrants travel from North Africa on rickety, overcrowded boats that often capsize or sink. One in every 42 migrants making the crossing dies, the U.N. refugee agency estimates.
However, in recent years criminal gangs have also been offering "luxury journeys" on seaworthy vessels manned by qualified sailors at a cost of between $6,000 and $8,000 per passenger, about four times the average price of a normal crossing, the police official said.
He told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that some Ukrainian sailors were looking for opportunities to make some money and possibly leave their country, where pro-Russian eastern separatists rose up against the government in 2014.
Since 2015, Italian police have arrested at least 65 suspected smugglers of Ukrainian origin, including two Ukrainian nationals held on human smuggling in June, the police official said..
The suspects arrested on Tuesday, aged 21 and 25, were in charge of a Turkish-flagged boat, which police believe had set sail from Turkey. The boat was intercepted off the Apulia coast on Monday evening.
Police said they had launched an investigation.
"Elements acquired during the operation will help detectives track down the crime syndicate profiting from desperate people fleeing war," police said in a statement.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)