It was the middle of a typically cold Ukrainian winter, and Valerii Berezkin, a balding, middle-aged mechanic, was in debt and needed cash. Then, in a billiards hall in the city of Cherkasy, a man approached him with a tempting offer: He could travel to Turkey and make money ferrying tourists and goods across the Mediterranean.
Berezkin accepted right away, and his world was turned upside down.
On his second week in Turkey, he was taken to a marina west of Istanbul where the yacht he was to sail, Mr. Adams, was moored. It was then that his recruiters told him what “goods” he would really be carrying across the Mediterranean: asylum seekers.
“On TV, they never show migrants being taken [to Europe] on yachts, by Ukrainians or anyone else,” Berezkin, 50, told OCCRP. “They sail on these rubber boats.”
Berezkin said his recruiters insisted to him that, he and the rest of the crew would face no more than a slap on the wrist if they were caught. “We thought, ‘why not?’”
What Berezkin didn’t know was that he was following a well-worn path taken by hundreds of other Ukrainians who have sailed yachts filled with migrants to Europe in recent years. Since 2014, 438 Ukrainians have been arrested for people smuggling in Greece and Italy, according to the EU’s border agency, Frontex.
Berezkin’s first voyage in 2017 landed him in prison in Greece, where he is now serving a 233-year sentence for multiple counts of people smuggling. But according to Ukrainian authorities he is also a victim, one of a steady stream of Ukrainians who have been tricked or coerced into the work.
The industry that ruined Berezkin’s life is a niche, yet thriving, criminal corner of the market that brought about 89,000 migrants and asylum seekers to Europe last year. Since the start of 2018, more than 125 yachts carrying at least 6,804 migrants have been detected on this route, according to Frontex.
The crews typically hail from Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine.
For migrants, travelling by yacht is a much safer way of reaching Europe than most alternatives. It’s also much more expensive. At the center of the yacht-based smuggling trade is at least one thriving transnational criminal network based in both Turkey and Ukraine, according to an investigation by OCCRP and its partners Slidstvo.Info and Investigative Reporting Project Italy.
To reveal this story, journalists from Ukraine, Italy, Greece, and Turkey combed through court files, law enforcement documents, media reports, and public data. They also conducted interviews with law enforcement officers, imprisoned sailors, and a whistleblower who worked within one of the smuggling networks.
Despite hundreds of arrests of low-level smugglers — including trafficked sailors who had been coerced or tricked into the work — law enforcement agencies from across Europe have had little success disrupting the network or arresting its high-level operatives, reporters found. It is a failure with many causes, which in turn shed light on Europe’s broader struggle in handling irregular mass migration by sea.
Recent arrests by Greek and Italian authorities, supported by Europol, show some progress, but the kingpins of the yacht-smuggling network remain at large.
In Greece, police and prosecutors have gone after sailors with heavy, decades-long sentences while routinely neglecting to follow up on evidence that points to higher-level operatives. Italian law enforcement has shown a similar lack of enthusiasm, though authorities have been aware of this form of smuggling for at least eight years.
In Ukraine, police have known the identities of alleged senior smugglers since at least 2018 and have even carried out some raids of their homes. Despite this, only a handful of low-level operatives have been prosecuted.
For Matteo Villa, an analyst for the Migration Programme at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, the weaknesses of the investigations into the migrant yachts are emblematic of broader shortcomings in governments’ efforts to curb illegal migrant smuggling.
“These findings confirm a fact: On all migrant routes, it has proven almost impossible to tackle the real criminal networks,” Villa told OCCRP. “This happens although the networks usually consist of well-known people, but who obviously do not expose themselves to the danger of going on the boats and remain in places that are more difficult to reach for European authorities.”
“The large-scale arrests of low-level smugglers is more a PR exercise than the reflection of an effective policy,” added Villa. “Numbers, especially big ones, can be easily politicized and the payoff for showing the public that, on the surface, ‘we are cracking down on traffickers’ can be great. Even if the reality is different.”
Refugees and migrants wait to be transferred to camps in Greece.
“Back in the Spotlight”
For migrants and asylum seekers hoping to reach Europe by sea, travel by yacht is among the best of some bad options. It is part of a long journey that most often begins in Syria, Iraq or Pakistan and usually first takes them to Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city.
According to testimonies given by migrants to Italian authorities and seen by OCCRP, seasoned trafficking middlemen, whose contacts are passed among the migrants, then arrange the onward trip. After spending several days in Istanbul safe houses, the migrants are transferred to the Turkish coast, where they board the yachts.
Their goal is usually Italy, a country favored by migrants as a stepping stone to prosperous northern European destinations, such as Germany, that have more liberal immigration policies.
Passage typically costs between 4,000 and 6,000 euros per person ($4,400 to $6,650), a high price that buys far more safety than than the rubber boats and other flimsy craft typically used by smugglers on the Mediterranean, said Marius Roman, a team leader in Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Center. At least 1,246 migrants and asylum seekers have drowned in the crossing this year.
The overall number of Mediterranean crossings is decreasing, but large numbers of asylum seekers and migrants remain stranded in Greece, Roman said. With other methods of escape becoming less available, traveling by yacht is an increasingly attractive proposition — and a growing concern for law enforcement.
“Now this phenomenon is back in the spotlight,” he said. “It’s still a very expensive route, it is still a route that is now in very high demand, I would say, because of a significant stranded migrant population in Greece that tries to move on by any available means and opportunity.”
Three Ukrainian smugglers pose before a meal in a boat, seen in a photo posted on social media.
“I Became Disgusted”
Using documents and interviews, reporters were able to identify at least one well-known network operating a migrant-smuggling ring. The group has been active since at least 2014 and remains largely intact despite law enforcement efforts.
Ukrainian anti-trafficking police in April 2018 opened an investigation into the group, which they labeled a “powerful criminal network,” according to a law enforcement briefing seen by reporters. It did not take them long to discover the identities of the alleged ringleaders, the document shows: several Ukrainian men hailing from the country’s Russian-speaking south and southeast. The document also identifies one Iraqi national believed to work with them in a senior capacity. OCCRP has declined to name them while police investigations are ongoing.
That structure — and the names of key suspects — is backed up by information provided by an anonymous whistleblower from inside the group, who provided photographs, social media posts, registry documents, departure information from a Turkish port, and even the passports of some alleged ringleaders. Reporters verified these details by cross-checking them with sailors’ testimonies, interviews with law enforcement, and social media postings.
“I received money for the work I was familiar with — sailing yachts across the Mediterranean,” the whistleblower recounted in text messages to the wife of a detained smuggler obtained by Iryna Suslova, a former Ukrainian lawmaker who has advocated on behalf of detained sailors. “I was not too worried until I saw that almost every yacht with a new crew was seized by Italian and Greek authorities and sometimes, while the refugees were boarding, in Turkey.”
“I became disgusted with this group, and so I ended the relationship.”
During the man’s time with the group, most of the ringleaders based themselves in Marmaris and other tourist towns on Turkey’s Aegean coast, buying yachts from across Europe. The crews tended to come from Ukraine, where poor economic prospects and a glut of trained sailors made recruitment simple.
A Ukrainian smuggler aboard a yacht in a photo taken from his social media account.
Yet Ukrainian authorities have so far failed to catch any high-level members of the group.
According to the law enforcement briefing obtained by reporters, police conducted raids on the homes of at least five suspected senior smugglers in March this year, seizing a trove of evidence including laptops, phones, plane tickets, and financial documents. Four smugglers were declared suspects.
In a statement to reporters, the head of the Ukrainian police’s human trafficking department, Artem Kryschenko, said pretrial investigations are currently being pursued against 11 people believed to be involved in smuggling operations. Publicly available court records show none of the named operatives have faced charges.
Suslova, the former lawmaker, said Ukrainian authorities can hardly be blamed for this. The country’s resources to combat human trafficking are already stretched, and tackling the problem requires international coordination.
“Of course, I always want it to be better. To not only fight the consequences, but to act as a preventative,” she said.
The largest-scale arrests were in Turkey in May, when media reported police had arrested 20 suspected smugglers, including an alleged senior operative, Akbar Omar Tawfeeq. A Ukrainian law enforcement official, who spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said Tawfeeq is a relative of the Iraqi Kurd identified in the Ukrainian police briefing.
Turkish police declined to comment for this story.
Meanwhile, the stream of yachts arriving in European waters continues unabated.
“These ‘Tourists’ are Something Else”
Reporters were able to reconstruct the journeys of several yachts carrying migrants to Europe. Many of these boats ended up being captured, and their sailors imprisoned.
One of them was Yevheniy Bakharev, from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, who was arrested along with two others in 2014 after the yacht they were sailing, the Udatcha, was intercepted by Italy’s Coast Guard at sea carrying 48 migrants. He is currently serving a nine-year sentence in Italy.
In court testimony, Bakharev claimed he was initially recruited to repair the Udatcha. A man called Sergei called him in February 2014 with the offer after he posted his phone number on several job websites.
Bakharev was flown to Istanbul alongside two other Ukrainian men before travelling to the seaside town of Marmaris. Then, he said, Sergei told him to collect the Udatcha from a Marmaris yacht club, carry out repairs, and sail it to Crimea.
Once already on their way, the three Ukrainians were forced to stop on a Greek island due to bad weather. The recruiter called him and issued new instructions: Pick up some migrants, and take them to Italy.
“We were threatened after we refused,” Bakharev told the court. “They also threatened [to hurt] my family.”
Reporters were unable to verify Bakharev’s claim. However, Ukrainian court documents show that prosecutors believe many sailors are tricked into the trade, and are sometimes threatened when they object.
Another Ukrainian sailor who worked for the same network in 2017, who has since returned home, told reporters he too only found out he would be carrying migrants after he arrived in Turkey. He decided to go ahead with the journey anyway.
“At the time, they say you’re going to be taking tourists around, and you’re like, ‘Oh cool.’ You get there and they tell you that these ‘tourists’ are something else,” said the sailor, who declined to be identified.
“We couldn’t go back, because we were already there. You think to yourself: ‘Okay, what can you do?’”
Despite what Ukrainian authorities say is the widespread use of deception to recruit boat crews, investigators have made little effort to go after high-level operators, according to imprisoned sailors, their families, and lawyers.
Liudmila Shapovalova, whose son Bakharev is in Italian prison, said she believed his story that he was tricked into the work. Interviewed by reporters in September at the corner store where she works in Kherson, she said the identities of those who had recruited them, and even their bosses, was no secret. From memory she named two organizers identified by police in their briefing note.
Yet Shapovalova said Ukrainian police had made no effort to find out what she knows.
“No one came to me. The police never spoke with me,” she said.
The Ukrainian port city of Kherson is home to many sailors recruited to smuggle migrants in boats.
“We Were Again Denied”
In the European Union, yacht-based people smuggling has until recently been a low priority for law enforcement.
Roman, from Europol, said his agency first became aware of the phenomenon in 2014, based on reports handed in by member state law enforcement agencies. Despite this, there had been no coordinated international response via Europol until this year, when a joint cooperation effort was launched.
“We have made some progress [since then],” he said. On December 12, Europol announced that it had helped Italian and Greek authorities arrest eight people allegedly involved in a network that had smuggled around 150 people between the two countries.
The biggest stumbling block to tackling larger networks like those investigated by OCCRP, he said, is that many voyages start from Turkey. And — with Europol, at least — Turkish police are not cooperating.
“We contacted [in 2017] our Turkish counterparts when the migration crisis was in full swing and then we got a negative reply,” he said. “Then we allowed for some more time to pass, we followed also interactions at the European level, and when we assessed that the relationships were heading into the right direction, we attempted again [in 2018] and were again denied.”
When Turkish police carried out their arrests in May, Europol found out via media reports, Roman said. When they tried to reach their Turkish counterparts for more information, they were met with silence.
Turkish police declined to respond to questions sent by reporters, saying they were confidential details related to ongoing investigations.
Ukrainian police anti-trafficking head Kryschenko said in his statement that Ukraine enjoyed good cooperation with Turkish, Italian and Greek authorities. He said that Ukraine had in 2018 and 2019 sent four requests for mutual legal assistance to these countries, half of which were answered and half of which are still pending.
In 2015, as a record number of migrants reached Europe, relations between Turkey and European Union states were put under strain. In an attempt to stop the flow, the European Council and the Turkish government agreed in March 2016 that all migrants arriving on the Greek Islands whose applications for asylum were turned down should be returned to Turkey. In exchange, European states promised Turkey 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in aid and to speed up of negotiations to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens. Since then Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to ditch the deal. In October, Erdogan warned European states that Turkey would “open the gates” for refugees if they opposed Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria. That invasion involves plans to resettle millions of refugees in a Turkish-controlled “safe zone” inside a strip of Syrian territory.
“They Can’t Solve it in One Day”
In Greece and Italy, there has been some sporadic interest in pursuing the higher ups.
Court records obtained by reporters from Reggio Calabria, in Italy’s south, show that Italian police have known about incidents of yacht-based smuggling since at least 2011 — three years before the first cases were reported to Europol.
Guglielmo Cataldi, chief prosecutor of the District Anti-Mafia Directorate in the southern Italian city of Lecce, has handled yacht smuggling cases since 2017.
“In most cases the sailors are Ukrainians,” Cataldi said. “They are poor wretches who are recruited either through online ads in Ukraine or when they are already working in Turkish marinas.”
These networks are difficult to unravel because the criminal acts span multiple jurisdictions, according to Cataldi.
Italian investigators collaborate effectively with Greek authorities, but their relationship with Turkey is “thorny,” he said.
Lawyers in Italy also say that at least some investigators are not even interested in trying. Gabriella Garofalo, who is based in the Sicilian city of Syracuse, has defended Ukrainian sailors charged with smuggling. The case of a man from the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol stood out to her.
“I could tell he was naive from his expressions and how he talked,” Garofalo said. “When he arrived he wanted to collaborate [with investigators], but they calmly said, ‘No thanks, all that we had to know we have it already; you cannot tell us anything more.’”
In a written response to questions, Italy’s financial police, the Guardia di Finanza, said multiple separate criminal networks are involved in yacht-based smuggling and are “headed by several foreign figures.” The agency “is involved in ongoing investigations, which so far have not led to the arrest of the bosses of the organizations,” it said.
In Greece, the situation is similar. Still reeling from its economic crisis, the country has had a particularly hard time handling flows of migrants and asylum seekers. In recent years, local courts have imposed harsh, decades-long sentences on boat crews arrested in its territory.
“When the traffickers are arrested, they are brought to Greek justice,” said Nikolaos Lagadianos, a spokesman for the Greek Coast Guard. “During the preliminary enquiry [they] are asked all those questions to clarify the case such as nationality and destination of the vessel.”
Greek authorities are working closely with Europol on its efforts at international investigation, said Zacharoula Tsirigoti, who until July headed the Greek police unit handling people smuggling. But bilateral cooperation with Turkey is difficult, she said.
Advocates for Ukrainians in Greek prisons, however, say the country is more interested in racking up large sentences against sailors than looking into smuggling bosses.
Suslova, the former Ukrainian lawmaker, said Ukraine’s government has repeatedly urged Greek authorities to regard the sailors as trafficking victims, and to instead focus on disrupting the smuggling network believed to be behind it all.
“They [the Greeks] have such systemic problems, and they realize that they can’t solve it in one day,” Suslova said. “And if they can’t solve it in one day, well, you know, they’re not very interested.”
Ukraine has sent court decisions to the Greek government stating that its citizens are victims, and has sought to have sailors transferred to Ukrainian custody, Suslova said. But these efforts have been met with resistance from officials afraid of looking weak on people smuggling.
“They say, ‘You understand that our citizens are annoyed not only by the refugees who comes, but also by the people who bring them here?’ For them, it’s a very unpopular decision to return our people, even if they are victims of human trafficking.”
In response to questions from reporters, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said it is “carrying out systematic work on the possibility of reducing the sentence for our compatriots” imprisoned for people smuggling in Greece and Italy.
Among those that Ukrainian authorities have found to be victims is Berezkin, the 50-year old staring down a 233-year sentence in Greece. According to a Ukrainian court, he was recruited via “deception, namely the promise of legal employment in the territory of Turkey.”
But Berezkin says nobody asked about the network that recruited him at any point during his Greek investigation and trial.