Turkey Captures Nearly 350 Migrants Trying to Cross Mediterranean to Italy

AP Photo/Francesco Pecoraro

The Turkish government announced it had captured 350 migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from the port region of Mersin to Italy or the greater EU.

Most attempting to board the captured smugglers’ ship were Syrian refugees, who have flooded Turkey in the aftermath of that nation’s civil war.

Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reports that 71 migrants were arrested onboard a ship named the Ole, which was flying a Mongolian flag at the time of its capture. Another 271 were captured ashore, waiting to board the ship. The Ole appeared to be heading across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. In addition to the migrants, another ten believed to be crew members of the ship were arrested carrying inflatable boats, apparently to be used in bringing the 271 ashore on board the ship.

While much of the attention on illegal immigration in the Mediterranean Sea and greater Europe has focused on African migrants attempting to travel north, the Syrian Civil War has created a robust market for human smugglers traveling west, using both the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. Turkish authorities claim they have arrested 1,754 individuals trying to cross into Europe illegally in the past year, and the nation has already become the home of 1.8 million Syrian refugees.

The struggle of migrants willing to bet their lives and sacrifice their lives’ savings to enter European Union territory became a major international story following what is believed to have been the greatest tragedy of its kind: the death of an estimated 700 migrants on April 19 whose ship capsized en route from Libya to Italy. In response, the EU held an emergency meeting in which nations agreed to triple international funding for a program to rescue these migrants, and France proposed missions to Africa in order to destroy smugglers’ vessels before they take sail. At the emergency meeting, EU member nations also agreed that they would limit the number of migrants permitted to stay in Europe after surviving the voyage. So far, nations agreed to keep 5,000 migrants in Europe, though 36,000 have already made it ashore in 2015.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the results of the European Union meeting, arguing that any attempt to destroy vessels before they took off for Europe would inevitably result in the deaths of migrants and condemning “statements coming from Europe preparing the ground for (vessels) to be sunk in the Mediterranean, in the Aegean, while transporting migrants and refugees.”

The Turkish Foreign Ministry reports that, on both land and sea, “nearly 700.000 illegal migrants were apprehended in Turkey within the period 1995-2007,” in addition to the extra million Syrian refugees who are legally in the country. The Ministry’s site notes that “organized networks” of human smugglers pose the greatest challenge to overcoming illegal immigration.

In addition to migration in the Mediterranean, Greece has seen an overwhelming number of mostly Syrian migrants attempt to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to enter Greece. While Greece’s economy has little to offer migrants, they would nonetheless land on EU soil. Authorities say Greek coast guard forces are “overwhelmed” in their attempt to keep migrants out, the most dramatic of which was the rescue of more than 90 migrants on a vessel trying to cross to Greece.

Greece is especially concerned that migrants traveling from Turkey may not be seeking a better life in Europe, but may disguise themselves as standard migrants but be operating on behalf of the Islamic State, which has a strong established presence in Turkey and often uses the nation as a path to cross into Syria and Iraq.