Migrants and the New Mediterranean Mafia

The Mare Nostrum operation set up by the Italian Navy rescues migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea in overloaded ramshackle boats. Organized crime is making a killing off migrants, especially if they survive the deadly journey to Europe. Sarah Caron World Mediterranean Migrant Crisis European Union Human trafficking Mafia PhotoLab It is a sunny morning in mid-April on Sicily’s east coast, and in the distance Mount Etna rises from a green-blue sea up through the olive groves to reach a snowy cone ringed by cotton ball clouds. In the center of this Mediterranean tableau, at the end of a long quay in the port of Augusta, is a jarring anomaly: a gray Italian gunboat, on whose rear deck hundreds huddle under heavy brown blankets. At the guardrail is a man, perhaps 35, with a wild beard and a baby on his hip. Beside him is a woman in an abaya holding hands with a small girl in pigtails. Their faces are smeared with dirt, their hair is covered with grime, and their clothes, once different colors, are almost indistinguishable under layers of brown filth and white dust. In the bright and sunny surroundings, the refugees seem out of place, like they might belong to another place or time: like an aid poster or a picture of the Holocaust. When a sea breeze carries the scent of this huddled mass ashore, the Red Cross workers on the quay recoil. How is it possible to be still alive and yet smell so much of death?The Italian navy rescued these men, women and children—mostly Syrians, Eritreans and Somalis—as they tried to cross the Mediterranean. Four days prior, however, 800 others drowned when their boat sank off the coast of Libya. This new group, then, is the lucky ones. Typically, their journey has cost them their life savings and years of suffering. Many of the African children are traveling alone. Others died of dehydration in the Sahara, long before they reached the Mediterranean shore. Some arrived in Libya without enough money to pay for the next Continue Reading

Merkel urges solidarity from all EU on taking migrants

BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed European member states Thursday to do their share in helping to deal with the large influx of migrants, work together to strengthen external borders and fight the problems causing people to flee their homelands. Speaking to Parliament before a meeting with other EU leaders Friday in Brussels, Merkel stressed that countries need to remember that "solidarity is not a one-way street" — a statement that seemed to take aim at eastern European members who have benefited from EU funding, but have been resisting taking in refugees. "It is up to all member states never to lose sight of their responsibility for the whole," she said, without naming any individual nations. "And that, of course, includes safeguarding our common European values on which the European Union was established." Germany took in by far the largest number of migrants since 2015. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are being sued by the European Commission for refusing to accept their share. Merkel says EU leaders need to agree upon a fair quota system for taking in asylum-seekers, saying that the goal is to have "significant steps" concluded by June. She said she would approach the negotiations with "tenacity and patience." She said Germany also plans to become more engaged in European matters overall, noting that her conservative bloc's coalition agreement with the Social Democrats — who still need to approve it before a new government is formed — stresses the importance of Europe. "Germany can only do well in the long term when Europe does also," she said. Among other issues she said Germany would push for the Brussels summit was how to make the EU more competitive in China, resolving conflicts in places like Syria, Libya and Ukraine, and how to move ahead after Britain leaves the trade bloc. "First, I'm convinced the world will not wait on us, neither on us in Germany nor us in Europe," she said. "And second, we need more Continue Reading

Farms’ migrant labor pool shrinking

FIREBAUGH, Calif. -- Nicholas Andrew Flores swatted at the flies orbiting his sweat-drenched face as he picked alongside a crew of migrants in a cantaloupe field in California's Central Valley. He didn't speak Spanish, but he understood the essential words the foreman barked out: "Puro amarillo." And "rapido, rapido!" Quickly, Flores picked only yellow melons and flung them onto a moving platform. For Joe Del Bosque of Del Bosque Farms in the San Joaquin Valley, American-born pickers like Flores, though rare, are always welcome. Del Bosque said he'll hire anyone who shows up ready to work. But that rarely means someone born in the U.S. For generations, rural Mexico has been the primary source of hired farm labor in the U.S. According to a federal survey, nine out of 10 agricultural workers in places like California are foreign-born, and more than half are in the U.S. illegally. But farm labor from Mexico has been declining in California. And under the President Donald Trump administration, many in the agricultural industry worry that deportations -- and the fear of them -- could further cut the supply of workers. But try as they have to entice workers with better salaries and benefits, companies have found it impossible to attract enough U.S.-born workers to make up for a shortage from south of the border. "Americans will say, 'You can't pay me enough to do this kind of work,'" Del Bosque said. "They won't do it. They'll look for something easier." For some migrants working the fields, people like Flores are a puzzle -- their sweating next to them represents a kind of squandering of an American birthright. "It's hard to be here under the sun. It's a waste of time and their talents in the fields," said Norma Felix, a Mexican picker for almost three decades. "They don't take advantage of their privilege and benefit of being born here. They could easily work in an office." Most don't last long, she said. "There is always one or two who show up every season," Felix Continue Reading

Boat with 100 migrants capsizes off Malaysia, killing at least 14

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — A wooden boat crammed with migrant workers who were headed back to Indonesia capsized Thursday off Malaysia's western coast, killing at least 14 people, a maritime official said. The boat was believed to be carrying 70 people, said First Adm. Mohamad Aliyas Hamdan, district chief of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. Fishermen had earlier estimated that 100 people were on board. He said 13 women and one man were confirmed dead, and 19 people had been rescued. Agency official Mohamad Hambali Yaakup said the boat sank in bad sea conditions not far from the coast, and several vessels and an aircraft were searching for survivors near the coastal town of Sabak Bernam in central Selangor state. He said the boat was believed to have been taking migrant workers home to Tanjung Balai in Indonesia's Sumatra province and was likely to have been overcrowded. Such incidents are common in Malaysia, which has up to 2 million Indonesian migrants working illegally. The Indonesians work without permits in plantations and other industries in Malaysia, and often travel between the countries by crossing the narrow Strait of Malacca in poorly equipped boats. Join the Conversation: Continue Reading

Why a Phoenix church that said no 2 years ago has voted to act as sanctuary for migrants

The Rev. James Pennington wonders aloud how many late nights he will spend with the stranger who will eat, sleep and take refuge in the small downtown Phoenix church.On this rare, rainy day in the desert, he nods at parishioners and absentmindedly remarks on the murky skies and puddle-filled roads that quelled attendance for his Sunday sermon on "loving thy enemy."The patches of dirt and grass in front of First Congregational United Church of Christ — First Church for short — soak up the rainwater. A couple of men who are homeless huddle in pews near the back of the chapel. Two women holding hands walk past the wooden sign in front of the church:One day soon, the congregation may be asked to stand behind the promise on the wooden sign and welcome a stranger who fears deportation amid the nationwide expansion of immigration enforcement. Two years ago, church members decided they weren't ready to take the risk of harboring someone trying to stay in the country. But much has changed since then and, in January, the congregation decided to act as a sanctuary, joining a decades-old movement that has nearly doubled in size since the November election of President Donald Trump.Pennington turns the key to a small room on the church grounds. He points at chairs, a coffee table and lamps. Other items will be added soon: a bed, a dresser, sheets, the necessities for someone who may live in the church for days or months.He stands in the doorway, knowing that no inventory list can calculate the needs of the man or woman who will take sanctuary at First Church.“This will be their home, for as long as they need,” Pennington said, freeing a long sigh that seems to blow smooth the creases of his frown.Pennington thinks back to about two years ago, when he first spoke with his congregation’s leadership board about an appeal he’d received. A Phoenix man needed help. A pastor from a congregation that had declared itself a sanctuary Continue Reading

Migrant ship crisis in the Mediterranean as more than 1,000 feared dead amid spate of sea tragedies

Officials across Europe are scrambling to respond to a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea, where more than 1,000 migrants are feared dead after the boats into which they were packed by ruthless human traffickers capsized. A weekend marked by tragedy continued into Monday, when a small wooden ship loaded with nearly 100 people ran aground in the Aegean Sea near the Greek island of Rhodes, killing at least three passengers, including a toddler. Italian authorities were also called in to help save three different migrant boats that experienced trouble off the Libyan coast, where an inflatable life raft packed with up to 150 people reported distress, as did another boat with 300 aboard. The horrid crisis has been fueled by human traffickers, who prey on desperate migrants trying to flee the violence and poverty that engulfs much of the Middle East and Northern Africa. Italian authorities have issued 24 arrest warrants in connection with the break-up of a major trafficking ring. Among those was Ermias Ghermay, an Ethiopian who helped orchestrate an October 2013 crossing that ended when the vessel capsized, drowning 366 near the Italian island of Lampedusa. “It is a very dark day for Europe,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said. “It really is horrific, the scenes that we have all witnessed on our television screens, the loss of life. We should put the blame squarely on human traffickers who are the ones managing, promoting and selling this trade, this trade in human life.” One of only two dozens survivors of a weekend shipwreck near the Libyan coast said some 950 people were aboard the boat when it capsized. Authorities originally estimated 700 were aboard and feared dead, but if the higher toll is confirmed, the sinking would be the deadliest Mediterranean Sea disaster in recent history. “He is pretty well now and he is reporting that there were really many, many Continue Reading

Growing number of African migrants risk trek to Europe through West Balkans

VELES, Macedonia  — This is the moment when Sandrine Koffi's dream of a new life in Europe ended — and her nightmare of an infant lost in the Macedonian night began. As club-wielding police closed in, the 31-year-old from Ivory Coast couldn't keep up with her fellow migrants. Not after more than a week of treacherous hikes through mud and bone-chilling rain; of leaky tents, stolen food and fitful sleep; of loads too heavy to bear. Koffi had given her 10-month-old daughter, Kendra, to a stronger person to carry as the 40-member group of West Africans walked with trepidation into Veles, Macedonia. They hoped, because it was pitch dark and miserably cold, that no one would see them and raise the alarm. But after a 10-day trek over 90 miles, their luck ran out. Officers captured Koffi and deported her with most of the group back to Greece. Others who escaped carried Kendra all the way to the Serbian border. That was more than two weeks ago. Now, the mother cannot stop crying for her distant daughter — or wondering why they can't travel like "normal" people. "I feel like I'm not a human being," Koffi told The Associated Press from the migrants' safe house in Greece, where she and her daughter had arrived last month in hopes of being escorted through the Balkans to Hungary and, eventually, to family in Paris. "Why is it necessary to separate a mother from her child? Why is all of this necessary?" HUMAN TIDE Each month, a tide of humanity pours through the hills of Greece, Macedonia and Serbia in hopes of entering the heart of the 28-nation European Union through its vulnerable back door in the Balkans. This is the newest of a half-dozen land and sea routes that Arab, Asian and African smugglers use to funnel migrants illegally from war zones and economic woes to opportunities in the West. Most don't make it on their first attempt. Nor their third or fifth. Many, it seems, just keep trying — and failing — over and over. Continue Reading

Northern California man gets life in prison for ‘executing’ migrant worker

A Humboldt County, Calif., marijuana farmer was sentenced Thursday to life in prison plus 35 years for executing an immigrant worker and trying to kill another. Mikal X. Wilde, 33, of Kneeland, owned an 800-acre pot forest in Northern California and used migrant workers to provide armed security and to harvest his massive crop, according to federal authorities. In 2010, Guatemalan laborers Mario Roberto Juarez-Madrid and Pedro Fernando Lopez-Paz decided to quit over changes made to their pay and work schedules. When they asked Wilde for their wages, he refused, according to a statement issued by the Justice Department. Instead, Wilde took the weapons he had issued to the employees and left. He returned a few days later and shot Lopez-Paz in the face. He shot Juarez-Madrid three times as the man ran away. Wilde delivered the last round with his gun pressed against the back of Juarez-Madrid's head. The illegal pot farmer hired migrants "in the belief that they were expendable, not in a position of complain and that they might not be missed if they disappeared forever into the woods of Humboldt County," court filings said. Despite being shot in the face, Lopez-Paz survived by hiding in the woods and getting help the following morning. Juarez-Madrid died from his wounds. A third worker, Christopher Bigelow, ran into the forest and was found by a jogger the next morning. Wilde has been in federal custody since 2012. He was convicted of murder, attempted murder and several drug-related charges. Join the Conversation: Continue Reading

Dozens of migrant children feared dead after rubber boat deflates in Mediterranean Sea

CATANIA, Sicily — Dramatic footage emerged Tuesday of a Mediterranean Sea rescue showing migrants on a sinking rubber boat desperately clambering up ropes and a ladder from a cargo ship that came to their aid. Five bodies were recovered and survivors reported many others drowned. The video was obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press from a crew member of the cargo ship Zeran, which rescued two migrant boats over the weekend. The footage shows migrants jumping off their deflating dinghy to catch life preservers tossed into the water by Zeran crew members. Other migrants empty jerry cans of gasoline to use as floats. A crew member is heard begging them to keep calm, saying "Easy! Easy!" Five bodies were recovered and were brought ashore Tuesday along with the survivors to the port in Catania, Sicily. Save the Children said survivors had reported "dozens" of people died in the rescue Sunday between Libya and Sicily. Giovanna di Benedetto of the aid group Save the Children said the exact toll wasn't known but that survivors, in their first interviews with aid groups, reported several people fell into the sea and couldn't swim. The weekend saw a dramatic increase in rescues as smugglers in Libya took advantage of calm seas and warm weather to send thousands of would-be refugees out into the Mediterranean in overloaded rubber boats and fishing vessels. The coast guard reported that nearly 7,000 people were rescued in the three days ending Sunday. The deaths come on top of the estimated 800 migrants who are believed to have drowned last month when their boat capsized off Libya with hundreds of passengers locked in the hold by smugglers. A few days earlier, a further 400 people were feared drowned in another capsizing. After the deaths, the European Union held an emergency summit and agreed to contribute more boats and patrol aircraft to Mediterranean rescue efforts. Even with the increased EU response, Continue Reading

Captain, crew member arrested in Mediterranean migrant ship disaster; EU leaders plan to ‘destroy’ smuggler boats

Two Middle Eastern human traffickers who helped captain and crew a doomed boat overloaded with African migrants were arrested Tuesday as European leaders prepared to hammer out a plan to address the burgeoning humanitarian crisis engulfing the Mediterranean Sea. The ship off the Libyan coast Saturday sank and likely drowned more than 800 people, the deadliest such incident in recent history in the Mediterranean, according to the United Nations. Authorities say the 27-year-old captain, a Tunisian named Mohammed Ali Malek, rammed the smuggling vessel into the King Jacob, a Portuguese cargo ship that had come to provide help. Malek, along with a Syrian crew member of the capsized ship, were both arrested. They were among only 27 people rescued alive from the disaster and taken to a migrant holding center in Catania, Italy, where they were “very tired, very shocked, silent,” said Flavio Di Giacomo of the International Organization for Migration. “The survivors said that the person who was steering the boat boat, their smuggler, was navigating badly, and he did a bad move that made it crash against the bigger ship,” Carlotta Sami, a UN refugee commission spokesperson, told the Associated Press. Smugglers often use rickety boats, be they inflatable zodiacs, old cargo ships or wooden hulled sailboats. Almost always, the craft are overloaded by migrants, who pay around $1,500 to make the dangerous journey, often originating in Libya and ending in Italy. Some 1,300 people are presumed to have died just in the last few days, and the ships continue to come. Italian coast guard crews helped rescue nearly 650 migrants on six different ships Monday, while another 450 people were rescued Tuesday. Unrest in Libya and several north African countries spreading across into the Middle East has left the countries’ borders porous and made it easier for smugglers to prey on migrants desperate to escape the Continue Reading