A ruthless system by which desperate migrants trying to reach Italy by boat across the Mediterranean are charged for "extras", such as lifejackets, food and water, has been revealed by survivors of the crossings and the interrogation of people smugglers.
Refugees told authorities that the boats, which regularly make the crossing from the coast of North Africa to Italy, are effectively divided into different classes.
A payment of about US$2500 ($2970) ensures that refugees get a "first class" spot on the deck of the boat, with tarpaulins to protect them. But asylum seekers who pay the minimum US$1500 fee are consigned to the hold, next to the engines, meaning almost certain death if their boat sinks, as many do.
Refugees, including children and pregnant women, are charged US$200 for a lifejacket. Food and water is not guaranteed but around US$100 buys something, even if it is just dirty water, chunks of bread and tins of tuna.
"During our voyage they didn't give us anything to eat or drink," a young Eritrean told the Italian authorities, according to La Repubblica. "Many children arrived in a pitiful condition and the pregnant women particularly suffered."
Asylum seekers who want to use a satellite phone to tell their families back home that they are safe or to inform relatives who have already reached Europe that they are on their way must pay US$200.
The payments have emerged from the questioning of smugglers including Karim El Hamdi, 32, a Tunisian former fisherman who piloted one of the boats to reach Sicily recently. He co-operated with the Italian police in return for a reduction on any future prison sentence. He said he was paid US$1500 to captain the boat.
People smugglers know they will be arrested when the boats are intercepted by the Italian Navy or coast guard in the Mediterranean and so delegate the task of captaining the vessels to any refugee with some seafaring knowledge. Each crossing nets between 400,000 ($646,000) and 1 million for smuggling syndicates.