The Criminal Migrant Shipping Network: A data driven cross-border investigation


Over a period of four months, a team of nine journalists spread across six countries pooled their resources to investigate the people who profited from selling migrants and refugees journeys from Turkey to the European Union in 2014 and 2015. This cross-border investigative project was supported with a grant from Journalismfund.eu. The results of the investigation began to be published in March 2016 in Belgium, France, Italy, Romania, Jordan and Turkey.

Thousands of migrants and refugees are fleeing conflict areas on board ships of various sizes in search of a better life in Europe. Some of these journeys end in disaster, with the ships sinking and the people onboard being killed. The main question for our team was: who was making money from what appeared more and more to be a well-organised criminal enterprise?

After getting financial support from Journalismfund.eu, we divided the work according to our specialties. Jean-Yves Tistaert, a Belgian freelancer with years of experience working for the Belgian government as a human trafficking specialist, was organising the data collection and analysis. Delphine Reuter, another Belgian freelancer with an interest in shipping, coordinated the team. A third Belgian member, Frédéric Loore, oversaw fact-checking, supervised the story and liaised with Belgian and French media. Giampaolo Musumeci, an Italian journalist and photographer who co-authored a book about human traffickers, met with prosecutors in Italy who had been tasked with investigating the people behind the cargo ships. Catalin Prisacariu, a Romanian journalist, started digging into the Romanian companies that were registered as the owners of the ships. In Greece, Nikolia Apostolou gathered information from coast guards and press reports. As the investigation required Arabic speakers, Hamoud Almahmoud and Nadia Al Shiyyab from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) researched the companies and people with ties to Syria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Finally, a Turkish member, Safak Timur, added to research on Turkish shipping companies and contacted local authorities.


Image: Port of Constanta in Romania, by Gabriel Drogeanu.

Investigating shipping companies

The project combined investigative techniques with a bit of data collection and analysis. We had two main objectives: first, establishing that there was a network of people behind the ships, who knew each other and did business with one another; second, that these people or at least some of them were or had been involved in illegal activities.

We started out with the ships themselves. First, we selected 17 cargo ships that had carried migrants and refugees from Turkey to Greece and Italy at the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015. Then, we cross-checked their IMO numbers using different databases and specialised websites to make sure we had the right ships. We knew that ships can change hands quickly and, therefore, we were careful in our approach. An IMO number doesn’t change over the course of a ship’s lifetime, compared to the name or the flag which can change several times. Finally, we used shipping databases to gather information about the companies that owned the ships.

Different types of companies with different roles can be involved in the ownership of one particular ship: the beneficial owner (actually benefiting from the operation of the ship), the commercial operator (making commercial deals with other companies linked to the operation of the ship), the registered owner (the one that appears on paper - often based in a tax haven). We were mostly interested in the beneficial owner, who profits from the ship being operated. However, it’s always best to cross-check the information using different databases and information gathered from authorities present in ports (including trade union representatives, who are in touch with the ship’s staff). Also, a specific company can list a ship as part of its fleet on its website even if it’s only chartering the ship, i.e. the real owner is another company that is “renting” out the ship for a definite period of time.

Another really useful way to get an idea of a ship’s seaworthiness is to identify which classification society granted its certificate. Well-known companies such as DNV-GL or Lloyd’s Register are more reliable than other much smaller ones. It can give an indication as to the shipowner’s seriousness in dealing with the seaworthiness of his ship and with safety onboard. That, on top of inspection reports (available from port authorities and shipping databases), helped us get an idea of who the shipowners were and their approaches to safety.

Once we listed the shipping companies and found information about their owners, we looked at their shipping fleet. In doing so, we found several ships that port authorities banned from sailing in European waters. Some had been inspected and detained for failing to meet safety standards, while others had been arrested by coast guards who found weapons and ammunition aboard suspected of being destined for Syria. Port authorities (known as Port State Control or PSC) usually list those ships on their website. For example, the waters around the EU are controlled by the PSC that are part of the Paris Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), so we found a few ships on their website which we were able to tie to the companies we were investigating. This enabled us to establish a pattern of illegal activities.

The websites of PSC are also interesting for their listing of flags (white, grey, and black, with black being the worst kind of flag). Many people believe that flags have a link to their owner or to the ship, but the main reason a flag is chosen is a financial one. In maritime law, the law enforced onboard a ship is determined by the flag used by that ship. Flags are bought and sold on a global market by private companies as well as maritime administrations. For example, there is an office in London selling the flag of Saint Kitts and Nevis, a Caribbean island. Interestingly, we found that some of the people we were investigating had also founded a company that sold the flag of Sierra Leone, which had been used onboard some of the ships we were looking at.

It was then a matter of fieldwork to cross-check this information with port agents and the owners we had found. We used court records and various reports from port authorities and trade unions to establish the chronology behind the ships we were focusing on (who bought what ship, from whom, for what purpose, and whom was it sold to). We then compiled the information gathered from the various countries and started writing the story by focusing on two ships, the “Blue Sky M” and the “Ezadeen”.


Image: Ezadeen, by Giampaolo Musumeci.

Ultimately, this project found success by bringing together journalists and researchers from different countries to leverage their unique experience and skills to tackle a very complex cross-border story.

Find out more about the project here.

About the author

Delphine Reuter is a Belgian journalist based in Brussels. She works part-time for IHECS, a journalism school, where she organises trainings for professional journalists, including in data and investigative journalism. She has participated to various investigative projects including with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, covering finance, migration, environmental issues, and more.

Teaser image: Giampaolo Musumeci.