International criminal gangs are now cashing in on people trafficking, with large cargo vessels smuggling Asian migrants across no less than three continents towards their desired destination - the UK, Panorama can reveal.
People smuggling via the sea is a big business when so many Africans are desperate to flee war and poverty in search of a better life in Europe.
Panorama: Destination Europe, BBC One 8.30pm Monday 10 September
Last year more than 50,000 African migrants reached Europe's southern shores in small rickety boats.
The Canary Islands in Spain and the island of Lampedusa in Italy are the preferred port of entry for the migrants as they are closest to Africa's shores.
Local people smugglers can charge up to £1,000 ($2,000) per person to supply a boat for the hazardous journey from countries like Libya (towards Italy) and Senegal (towards Spain).
Panorama joined the Italian coastguard and customs and excise teams as they patrolled the southern Mediterranean during the busy summer season.
The programme also tracked down the Georgian captain of one boat used for trafficking, who admitted receiving instructions from Russian mafia gangs.
Encouraged by calmer seas and better weather, thousands of migrants set off between July and September.
Dangerously overcrowded, unseaworthy and without navigation, most boats reach Italian waters after many days at sea, with fuel and water running out.
Sending them back would be a death sentence for all those on board.
In an attempt to tackle the challenge the EU has set up a border patrolling agency called Frontex.
Pooling together vessels, planes and manpower from different EU countries, Frontex has so far coordinated a handful of spot operations to police Europe's southern borders.
It was during one such mission in March this year that the Italian Coastguard made a startling discovery.
"We were operating in Senegalese waters as Frontex, in co-operation with the Spanish authorities," Captain Gianluca D'Agostino told Panorama, "when we received intelligence about a suspicious cargo ship.
"When we finally caught up with it, 260km (160 miles) off Senegal's coast, it looked like a ghost ship, with no flag on display, eerily quiet and nobody on the deck."
Ironically the ship was called Happy Day.
It appeared that the cargo was registered in North Korea, manned by a crew of six sailors from Georgia and its purported destination was Odessa, in Ukraine.
Panorama obtained exclusive footage of the ensuing operation where, armed and apprehensive, Captain D'Agostino and his men boarded the Happy Day, detained the crew and searched the boat, room by room.
Hidden in the hold they finally found what they suspected: hundreds of migrants crammed like cattle in appalling conditions.
"The hygienic conditions were extremely bad. We were very worried about these people suffering down there."
The 350 men from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh had travelled across two continents to get to the boarding point in Africa.
Panorama tracked down the Happy Day to a port in West Africa
"They told us they had each paid $5,000 (£2,500) for the trip.
The captain claimed that they were navigating towards the Mediterranean shores.
From there, he said, the migrants planned to continue their journey by land towards the UK.
The Italian captain took control of the vessel and its million-dollar cargo for two days but finally only had the authority to send it back towards the African coast. From there the Happy Day, its crew and human cargo vanished.
But Panorama travelled to West Africa and managed to track down the Georgian captain of the Happy Day.
Confronted by Panorama reporter Paul Kenyon in the port of Conakry, Guinea, the man admitted receiving instructions from Russian mafia gangs but claimed he didn't know what had happened to the 350 people he had on board.
Laura Boldrini from the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, says people trafficking is a major issue as the traffickers are unscrupulous and do not care about their clients' lives.
"What they care about is getting money. It's a sort of Russian roulette.
"You can understand how desperate these people are when you see the kind of boats [they arrive in]."
Beyond smuggling, distinguishing between asylum seekers and economic migrants is also a thorny issue, Ms Boldrini explains.
"You find people fleeing from poverty. But you can also find people escaping from persecution, civil wars, lack of respect for human rights.
"These are asylum seekers and refugees already. The flows are mixed. This is why it is difficult."
The tens of thousands of African migrants who survive the trip and make it to Europe are then faced with another uphill struggle: finding accommodation and work is extremely hard even for those who are granted legal status to remain. The rest, faced with an expulsion order but no money to go back, begin a life of exploitation in the underground economy.
"It is difficult to deal with this and for Europe this is a real challenge", Ms Boldrini says.
Panorama: Destination Europe can be seen on BBC One at 2030 BST on Monday 10 September 2007