Over the Christmas break, we had two stories of people traffickers abandoning ships full of migrants in the seas surrounding Italy – first there was the Blue Sky M and then the Ezadeen. The Moldovan-registered Blue Sky M was transporting 796 migrants mostly from Syria (plus a newborn baby and, it turns out, four corpses), while the Ezadeen was registered in Sierra Leone and carrying 359 Syrian refugees, including 62 children. This second case started the hand-wringing in earnest, as the traffickers not only abandoned the ship but left it on auto-pilot heading straight for the Italian coast. I didn’t catch his name, but someone being interviewed on Radio 4’s “Today” programme commented that the traffickers don’t care about the safety of their cargo/passengers, but only about the money. Well colour me amazed: criminals endangering others to make a quick buck.
And not just a buck. As explained in this BBC article on the trade, the Ezadeen migrants paid their traffickers a total of £1.9 million for their journey from Cyprus. The ship itself, a 240-foot vessel originally built in 1966 to transport cattle, wouldn’t have cost the traffickers very much, and they certainly didn’t lavish money on a well-trained (or even responsible) “crew”. So there’s plenty of profit being made along the line. And then, with my AML sniffer already on high alert, I heard James Wilkes, MD of maritime investigation specialists Gray Page talking on the Channel 4 news: “This is organised crime. Make no doubt about it. They’d pay maybe a couple of thousand US dollars for the vessel. To get these old ships legitimately registered is expensive. Owners won’t really mind who they’re selling them to. They’re not scarce, these ships.”
So ship owners are selling their vessels without being required to make enquiries as to source of funds, or purpose of purchase. How are they different from estate agents (if they accept payments via bank transfer) or high value dealers (if in cash)? I may be a tad obsessed, granted, but I genuinely believe that the way to tackle acquisitive crime is through the money. Criminals are not deterred by threats of custody, and they plainly have no better nature to which we can appeal – seeing photos of people packed into the Blue Sky M like the slave ships of old should turn any stomach, but apparently not. So our most effective weapon is our regime for tracking, freezing and seizing their criminal proceeds: three cheers for AML!