Police have arrested almost 50 people in Gibraltar on suspicion of smuggling migrants into Europe using fraudulently obtained British tourist visas.
They said a migrant smuggling ring charged about €8,000 (Dh32,700) per person and trafficked more than 130 people from Morocco into Spain and other European states, Gibraltar and Spanish police said on Sunday.
More than 200 officers, directed by Europol, made 47 arrests when tracking down the crime syndicate, which had made more than €1 million from its illegal activities.
Five vehicles, €19,000 and 12 mobile phones were seized in searches in Spain and Gibraltar, its tiny neighbour on the southwest Iberian Peninsula.
Forty-four people were arrested in Spanish provinces and three more detained in Gibraltar, all on European arrest warrants.
The investigation began in November 2018 after the Royal Gibraltar Police noticed an unusually high number of Moroccans entering the British territory on short-stay UK visas.
The visas didn’t allow entry into any country within the Schengen Area – a border-free zone comprising 26 European states – meaning they couldn’t enter Spain legally.
Investigators found the traffickers in Morocco planned migrants’ journeys and prepared false documents to show to British authorities.
Once the visas were obtained, the smuggling ring would book plane tickets for the migrants, provide them with hotel reservations in Gibraltar and instruct them on who to contact on the territory. The contact in Gibraltar would then help them cross the border into Europe secretively in 4x4 vehicles.
Royal Gibraltar police commissioner Ian McGrail said: “This investigation is one visible example of the type of work that goes on behind the scenes to protect our borders from threats to national security.
“It also sends a message that Gibraltar will not allow itself to be used by unscrupulous criminals who exploit the human suffering of migrants for economic benefit.
“Organised crime has a huge impact on society at large. We are therefore duty-bound to counteract activities which pose a risk to our community with all the policing instruments at our disposal.”
On Christmas and Boxing Day last year, 300 migrants in makeshift boats were rescued off the coast of Spain. Several of the migrant dinghies were found off the coast of Gibraltar and the Canary Islands, west of Morocco.
Last year, at least 1,317 migrants died while trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean, the UN’s International Organisation for Migration reported.