Syrian people-smuggling 'kingpins' arrested in European operation

Police believe criminal network has brought at least 10,000 people into continent illegally

General view of the Europol building in The Hague, Netherlands December 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eva Plevier
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European police on Friday said they had arrested eight people-smuggling "kingpins" and dismantled a vast secret network accused of transporting 10,000 mainly Afghan, Pakistani and Syrian migrants to the continent.

A German-led task force involving Austria, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and the Netherlands also arrested 126 accomplices, mainly in Austria, the EU's police agency Europol said.

The gang advertised its services on social media platforms to build trust among migrant communities and often used short videos to "sell their supposedly safe smuggling services", Europol said.

But some of the footage showed smugglers using guns while escorting migrants through a fence at the Hungarian border.

Europol, which co-ordinated the operation that started in August last year, said the “highly dangerous” kingpins were mainly from Syria.

"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," the agency based in The Hague said in a statement.

Those participating in the operation detected 916 "smuggling incidents", carried out 151 house searches and seized almost €1 million ($1,072,865) in assets, it said.

The smugglers used lorry trailers, enclosed vans and cars to move migrants from Turkey through the Western Balkans region, Romania and Hungary towards Austria, Germany and the Netherlands.

The suspects were charging €4,000 to €10,000 to run migrants across Europe's borders "in extremely poor and often life-threatening conditions", Europol said.

Payments were mainly made via the so-called hawala underground financial system, an unofficial money-exchanging network conducted through face-to-face transactions that is far more difficult to trace than bank transfers.

German police said another six suspects were still at large.

Updated: June 03, 2022, 12:41 PM