European police identify 24 key players behind human smuggling rackets

Europol say groups became more professional in 2021 with bigger profits on offer

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was accused of sparking the migration crisis with the European Union. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

European police forces have identified 24 key players behind the increasingly professional and violent human smuggling racket.

The rise in demand for smuggling services from migrants desperate to reach the European Union has led to a surge in criminal profits and sparked battles for control of the trade, according to the European policing agency Europol.

The increase in demand has brought “an increased risk of violence, as groups vie for control of smuggling routes and increasingly use aggression against law enforcement,” it said in its annual smuggling report for 2021.

Each of the 24 — who have not been identified because most are targets of ongoing investigations — pose a threat to at least two EU member states from their organised crime activities.

The increasing professionalism behind the smuggling rackets is seen through the use of digital tools to run and co-ordinate their operations.

It cited the case of Belarus from where a surge of migrants from Iraq and Iran tried to cross the border into Poland and the easternmost border of the EU.

EU leaders blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for stoking the dispute through its ally Belarus as part of a strategy of hybrid war and to test the readiness of the EU to tackle a border crisis. The potential for profits led smugglers to promptly focus their interest in the area, said Europol.

Police forces from six countries targeted hundreds of social media accounts that promoted the sale of counterfeit identity documents and for smuggling services. The route through Belarus was heavily advertised on messaging and social media platforms.

Europol’s executive director Catherine De Bolle said: “Migrant smuggling and human trafficking networks … use any crisis as an opportunity to increase their illegal profits.”

Updated: February 24, 2022, 2:31 PM