People smugglers are trying to protect lucrative cargo by employing reckless decoy drivers to draw the attention of police near checkpoints, a new European trafficking report said.
Some of the drivers involved ram police cars to stop them discovering migrants packed tightly in lorries, police organisation Europol found.
Decoy cars are used to clear the area in front of the lorries or to try to block officers should they threaten to disrupt the trade.
Officials from Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre said criminals had adapted quickly to the restrictions and reduced traffic brought by the Covid-19 pandemic and altered their tactics accordingly.
This involved an increasing use of so-called "forerunner cars" to protect lorries, particularly on the Western Balkans route – from Turkey and Greece into central Europe – where the number of lorries carrying people recently surged. Cases reported in the last three months of 2020 increased threefold year-on-year.
“Some forerunner cars intentionally commit traffic violations in order to avoid police checks for the following transport vehicles, or obstruct the police when stopping the transport vehicles, in that way securing the movement of irregular migrants,” an EMSC annual report said.
“A forerunner car is often used to clear the road ahead of police controls ... while some drivers appear to diligently follow traffic regulations trying not to draw attention, others – specifically drivers of the transport vehicles – are reckless in their behaviour, attempting to avoid being caught by police.”
The report said they drove “fast and dangerously” and crashed or threatened to ram police cars, exposing the migrants to “serious traffic accidents”.
Drivers detained by police were most commonly from Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Croatia, Europol said. Evidence from Greece suggested the drivers were recruited locally but used cars registered outside the country.
As well as being hidden in lorries, migrants are hidden in boots, engine compartments and purpose-built hiding places, it said. Smugglers often travelled for several hours without stopping to reduce the chances of capture.
The EU estimated there were 142,000 illegal border crossings into the bloc in 2019, the lowest in seven years.