ROME (Reuters) - The figures jumping from a small boat into the clear shallow waters and running ashore on an Italian beach look like troops practicing a D-Day-style landing, but this is no drill, and these are not soldiers.
The images, caught on camera, show what has become a increasingly common sight on the beaches of Italy’s southern islands - migrants from Africa landing in broad daylight.
“In the past these boats came at night,” said Claudio Lombardo, the local head of the Mareamico (Friend of the Sea) environmental group who filmed the scene on a beach near Agrigento in Sicily on Wednesday morning.
“When they came at night, all you saw was the abandoned boat on the beach the next day and the people were nowhere to be found, and that’s why we called them ghost boats.”
The change in tactic by people smugglers comes as the number of arrivals from Libya - long the busiest route for migrants from Africa trying to reach the European Union - have plummeted since departures from the coastal city of Sabratha were stopped by a shadowy armed group this summer.
As Libyan departures slumped, wooden boats from neighbouring Tunisia have started landing on secluded Sicilian beaches, often in broad daylight while tourists are out sunbathing, an official leading the investigation into the arrivals told Reuters.
Some 3,000 migrants, mostly men, have come from Tunisia in the past two months, with between 1,500-1,800 landing on the south coast of Sicily, and the rest on the smaller islands of Lampedusa or Linosa, said the local investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
It is still fewer than the Libyan arrivals, which totalled well over 10,000 over the past two months, but such numbers have not been seen since Tunisia’s “Arab Spring” revolution in 2010 and 2011, said Lombardo, whose priority is to protect beaches from damage caused by the abandoned boats and belongings.
Those who reached the smaller islands have almost all been identified by police, while between 20 to 40 percent of those who made it to Sicily vanished without trace, the official said.
Almost all are Tunisians, and some had already been expelled from Italy in the past, the investigator said. The Agrigento court is looking to see if smugglers pick them up upon arrival in Italy.
“We’re more concerned about the ones who try to flee because perhaps they could have problems with the law either in Tunisia or Italy,” he said.
As for the 50-or-so filmed by Lombardo, they climbed up into the dry hills beyond the beach and headed inland, discarding T-shirts and shoes.
“They have a kit with them, which is a bag with a change of clothes, and bottles of water and milk,” Lombardo said. “Within 30 minutes, they disappear. They’re gone.”
Police pick up many found walking along roads, the investigator said. On Thursday, one young Tunisian man was killed by a car in a hit-and-run near Agrigento.
While some of the boats are big enough to make the more than 200-km (125-mile) crossing from Tunisia, some are very small, raising questions about how they got there.
“We have not excluded the existence of mother ships,” the investigator said, referring to large fishing boats used in the past to ferry migrants close to the coast before putting them onto smaller boats for the last leg of the voyage.
Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Robin Pomeroy