Italy arrests 12 people over speed boat migrant trips from Tunisia

  • World
  • Wednesday, 21 Feb 2024

ROME (Reuters) - Italian police said on Wednesday they had arrested 12 suspected human traffickers for allegedly organising high-speed transfers for at least 73 illegal migrants from Tunisia to Europe.

Expert pilots operated the speed boats crossing from Tunisia to Marsala in Sicily between June and September last year, police said in a statement, describing them as "VIP trips".

The traffickers transferred relatively small groups of up to 20 people on each of four trips, charging fees of up to 6,000 euros ($6,500) per person, the statement said.

The trip, on a crowded and less seaworthy vessel, would normally cost under 1,000 euros per migrant, an official with knowledge of the matter said.

Italy and other European governments have taken an increasingly hard line on immigration in recent years amid a surge of arrivals of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. EU data shows fewer than 100,000 irregular migrants made to it Europe in 2020, but that rose to 250,000 last year.

Six Tunisians and six Italians were detained as part of an investigation coordinated by European police body Europol and the Italian anti-mafia police unit.

The investigators identified a Tunisian former police officer as the head of the trafficking organisation.

They also held 19 illegal migrants and arrested eight Tunisian boat operators last year during the initial part of the investigation. Four of the boat crew were also charged over firing naval flares at a military vessel during an attempt to evade being apprehended by authorities.

Since the beginning of the year, 4,247 illegal migrants have landed on Italy's shores, data from the home affairs ministry shows. That is down from more than 12,500 at the same stage in 2023, when Italy recorded unprecedented pressure from the number of people trying to reach Europe.

Tunisia has replaced Libya as North Africa's main departure point for people fleeing poverty and conflict elsewhere in Africa and across the Middle East in the hope of a better life in Europe.

This month, 17 migrants coming from Tunisia went missing during their sea voyage and at least nine died in two separate accidents.

($1 = 0.9259 euros)

(Reporting by Alessandro Parodi and Alvise Armellini, editing by Keith Weir and Bernadette Baum)

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