An Operational Task Force (OTF), led by the German Federal Police and coordinated by Europol has targeted some of the most dangerous migrant smugglers across the EU. The dedicated OTF Pathfinder involved law enforcement authorities from Austria, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and the Netherlands, and led to the opening of 39 new investigations. The latest Action Day on June 1 led to the arrests of two High Value Targets, 12 house searches and seizure of more than EUR 80,000 in Germany and France.
The OTF Pathfinder, created by Europol in August 2021 and initiated by Germany, targeted some of the most dangerous migrant smugglers active across the EU. These Europol High Value Targets, mainly Syrian nationals, had global connections in source, transit and destination countries. Europol checked its databases and discovered that these suspects are already linked to 150 investigations. Since the launch of the OTF Pathfinder, national law enforcement authorities have initiated 39 new investigations connected to these 14 individuals. One of these connected investigations led to the arrest of one of the High Value Targets by the Italian Financial Corps, supported by the Albanian Police and the Hellenic Police. Another one resulted in 18 suspects arrested in Romania. The suspects were charging between EUR4,000 and EUR10,000, despite smuggling and accommodating migrants in extremely poor and often life-threatening conditions.
The investigative leads revealed that the targets facilitated the smuggling of at least 10,000 migrants, who are mainly of Afghan, Pakistani and Syrian origin, to the EU. Europol facilitated the information exchange and produced a large number of intelligence analysis products, which support the national authorities in connecting these large-scale cross-border criminal activities, identifying perpetrators and detecting ongoing smuggling activities.
The investigations uncovered that these suspects were running a large-scale smuggling business, making use of the same logistics, accommodations and travel arrangements. They used cargo bays of lorries, closed vans and personal cars to smuggle migrants from Turkey through the Western Balkans region, Romania and Hungary towards Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. The payments were mainly made via the so-called hawala underground financial system, while at least one of the 14 targets acted as a hawaladar. The suspects used social media platforms to advertise their illegal business and to convince the migrants’ relatives that the smuggling was safe. Facilitators typically need to build up trust among migrant communities in order to recruit as many migrants as possible. The facilitators in this case used short videos to advertise their services and sell their supposedly safe smuggling services. However, some videos show the facilitators using firearms while escorting migrants through the Hungarian border fence. Further to this, the investigations uncovered that many of the migrants were transported in life-threatening conditions, concealed in vans and private cars. In December 2021, Europol organized the first Referral Action Day to remove illicit advertisements of migrant smugglers’ activities.
As the latest Pathfinder action day was underway, Europol supported a separate investigation which culminated in the Hellenic Police/Aliens Division of Attica dismantling a criminal network involved in the production and dissemination of counterfeit documents. The criminal group disseminated forged IDs to other groups involved in migrant smuggling.
This action day on June 1 and 2 led to the arrest of eight suspects (3 South Sudanese, 1 Eritrean, 1 Iraqi, 1 Nigerian, 2 Ivorian), and the seizures of 362 forged documents (153 passports, 156 ID cards, 42 residence permits, 11 asylum documents), 118 passport covers, printers and various relevant materials, electronic equipment and EUR3,995 in cash
The investigation, initiated in March 2021, targeted a criminal network involved in document fraud and migrant smuggling and identified 14 suspected members of the group, mainly nationals of African countries. The members of this very well organized criminal group had clearly defined roles and tasks: forgers, smugglers, intermediaries or associates. The investigation into their activities uncovered that the gang had established a print shop in Athens for the forgery of travel documents supplying the black market for migrant smuggling services. The criminal group sold fake documents to other criminal networks, or used them to smuggle migrants from Egypt towards Greece and on to other EU destinations.
The investigation identified two smuggling routes: from Egypt to Greece with the use of falsified Schengen visas on African passports, and from Egypt through countries in the Western Balkans towards the EU. To date, the investigators have identified 195 criminal cases, more than 565 falsified documents and 66 migrants being smuggled with the use of this network’s illegal supplies. The illegal profits are estimated to amount to more than half a million euros at the very least.
Europol facilitated the exchange of information and provided analytical support. On the Action Day, Europol deployed an expert to Greece to cross-check operational information against Europol’s databases in real time, to provide leads to investigators in the field. The operation was carried out under the umbrella of the Greek National Operational Plan signed by Europol and the Hellenic Police in June 2016. The purpose of the plan is to disrupt organized criminal networks involved in migrant smuggling and to reinforce secondary security controls in migration hotspots.