ROCCELLA JONICA, Italy — When the Taliban took Kabul in August, Zakia was six months pregnant and in her first year of university while her husband, Hamid, was working as an auditor. They decided to flee, and along with five relatives, began a two-month odyssey that took them through Iran and Turkey.

When it was time to cross the Mediterranean, they did so on an expensive sailboat that came ashore this month on a beach in the southern Italian region of Calabria.

They were dehydrated, but relieved to have survived a lesser-known migration route to Europe that is increasingly being used by wealthier Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians and Kurds. Entire families are paying top price for passage from Turkey aboard new or nearly new sailboats that can more easily avoid detection by authorities. Investigators say they are captained by smugglers, often Ukrainians, who may be in cahoots with Turkish mobsters and Italian ‘ndrangheta clans on shore.

‘1st class’ crossings

While aid workers call these “1st class” crossings, there is nothing elite about them. Hamid and Zakia were packed with 100 people below deck for a week as food supplies dwindled. After two days without fresh water, Zakia couldn’t feel the baby moving inside her anymore.

“It was the worst experience of my life,” Hamid said in an Italian gym as he and his wife waited to be processed for Covid-19 quarantine locations after their sailboat, “Passion Dalaware,” came ashore Nov. 10.

For years, most political, humanitarian and media attention has focused on the hundreds of thousands of migrants, most of them Africans, who cross the central Mediterranean aboard unseaworthy vessels launched by smugglers from Libya and Tunisia.

The Calabrian route, which brings the migrants from Turkey to the “toe” of boot-shaped Italy rather than Sicily and its islands further south, has seen a nearly four-fold increase in arrivals in 2021 and now accounts for 16 percent of the sea arrivals in Italy this year.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is monitoring the situation closely, though the increase in Calabrian arrivals is mirrored by a similarly sharp increase in migrants arriving in Sicilian ports. Overall, sea arrivals in Italy this year are up to 59,000 compared with 32,000 at this point last year. The Calabrian route has seen 9,687 arrivals as of Nov. 14, compared with 2,507 last year. (AP)