Although the COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented travel restrictions, criminal networks active in illegal immigration and human trafficking have continued to thrive, displaying a high degree of adaptability. New emerging routes, new technologies and new modus operandi have forced law enforcement agencies to be better prepared and more vigilant than ever.
Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre’s sixth annual report provides an overview of recent activities and outlines recommendations for the ways in which Europol can bolster Europe’s security and help Member States effectively combat organized crime.
2021 has seen an increase in the role that digital technologies play in migrant smuggling and the trafficking of human beings. Migrant smugglers have expanded their use of social media platforms and mobile applications in order to offer their illegal services. Human traffickers have abused the anonymity of the internet environment to target vulnerable individuals and then exploit them via both escort websites and even dating platforms.
The report notes that migratory pressure on the eastern borders route via Belarus has influenced the increase of the presence of criminal networks facilitating secondary movement along that route.
Other trends from 2021 include almost double the smuggling activities on the passage by sea to Italy. In addition, the fee for this journey jumped from EUR 6,000 to EUR 12,000.
Increased poly-criminality of migrant smuggling networks active along the Western Mediterranean and Western African routes has also been recorded.
In response, Europol coordinated the first referral action day targeting the facilitation of illegal immigration services offered online, amongst other responses. In total, Europol supported 6,139 new investigations of migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings in 2021. Some 26 high-value targets were identified.
For example, an investigation carried out between French, Romanian and Moldovan authorities, supported by Europol and Eurojust, led to the dismantlement of an organized crime group involved in migrant smuggling, human trafficking for labour exploitation, document fraud, social benefit fraud and money laundering. The criminal network smuggled and registered Moldovan workers in France with fake documents while keeping their real passports as a guarantee. Illicit profits were estimated around EUR 14 million. During the operations, simultaneous raids were carried out in France, Romania and Moldova and 51 locations were searched in the three countries. Authorities froze 11 bank accounts, arrested 38 suspects and seized, among others, 19 vehicles including 15 high-end cars, 2 jet skis, weapons, phones, and roughly EUR 100,000 in cash.
The report also warns that the increase in demand, and the resultant rise in profits, has led to further professionalization of the smuggling networks behind irregular migration and human traffcking. With this comes an increased risk of violence, as groups vie for control of smuggling routes and increasingly use aggression against law enforcement.