European police forces target ‘professional’ smuggling gangs

Iraqi Kurd, Afghan and Albanian gangs at the forefront of people smuggling operations

European police said people smugglers had become increasingly professional to maximise their profits. Petros Giannakouris / AP Photo
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European police forces are targeting increasingly professional Iraqi Kurd and Afghan criminal gangs responsible for pan-European people-smuggling operations, officials said on Friday.

The gangs use sophisticated techniques including welding false doors onto lorries to build secret spaces within refrigerated lorries to try to elude guards within the European Union, according to Britain’s National Crime Agency. The networks rely on the collusion of truck drivers who charge about £2,000 to carry migrants into the UK, said officials.

“The Iraqi Kurd groups are highly organised with a presence all the way from Iraq to the UK,” said deputy director Tom Dowdall. “They have a significant presence in northern France and they have been well-established for at least ten years.”

The agency said that nations putting up physical barriers to migrants “played into the hands” of the smugglers, since it forced the desperate into the arms of criminals to overcome the difficulties of crossing borders.

Aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warned Friday that Italy shutting its ports to humanitarian rescue ships will trap more migrants in Libyan detention centres and in the hands of smugglers.

Italy's new far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who took office on June 1, has said the rescue ships are no longer welcome on his shores, arguing that the country had already taken more than its fair share of migrants.

The European police agency Europol estimated that criminal gangs are making €3-6 billion a year from people smuggling. European law enforcement is focused on key hotspots where organised crime gangs link up with desperate migrants, who then can become victims of trafficking.

The gangs are loading migrants into lorries in different countries to try to confuse police operations working across national borders, said Mr Dowdall. Law enforcement is using techniques such as devices to detect heartbeats but they do not work for lorries with refrigeration units that drowns out the sounds of hidden migrants inside.