Police break up people-smuggling gang operating from Iraq to Germany

Migrants paid between €4,000 and €10,000 depending on trafficking route and destination

One of the safe houses used by the people smugglers in Romania. Europol

Police have broken up a migrant-smuggling gang operating along the Balkan route into Europe that included Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian cell members.

The criminal gang, based in Romania, had members in many countries along the route that managed the recruitment, accommodation and transport of migrants from Jordan, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Migrants paid between €4,000 and €10,000 ($4,747 to $11,870) depending, in part, on the trafficking route and destination, police said on Friday.

The operation on Thursday included 22 house searches and was co-ordinated by Romanian police. It ended with 18 suspects arrested and the seizure of munitions, cars and cash.

The migrants, some of whom were families with young children, were accommodated in extremely poor conditions, often with no access to toilets or running water.

More than 100 people at one time were stashed in a tiny safe house measuring about 60 square metres.

Migrants were transferred into overcrowded lorries and hidden between merchandise and in vans without proper ventilation en route to Hungary and Germany.

The gang, active since October 2020, also included Romanian citizens.

Police said the gang was very well organised and also involved in drug trafficking, document fraud and property crime.

As European governments continue to crack down on illegal immigration, human traffickers have had to become more creative in bringing people across the border. Last week, Greek police arrested a people smuggler who used high-end cars driven at speeds of up to 250km/h to race through the Greek border region with migrants packed in the boot.

Migration to Europe has posed an increasing challenge to EU authorities as pandemic-related economic difficulties and political upheaval force more people to look for a better life abroad.

Hundreds of migrants have arrived by boat to the Italian island of Lampedusa in the past two days amid the political crisis in Tunisia.

The charity Open Arms said most of the 170 people it rescued near Italy's southernmost island had set sail from Tunisia, about 110 kilometres away.

Tunisia is a major partner in stemming the flow of migrants from Africa to Europe, with EU members divided over how to manage the arrivals.

But Tunisians themselves now make up one of the largest groups of people seeking asylum in Europe.

Updated: July 31, 2021, 8:26 AM