A people trafficking gang alleged to have charged up to $22,000 to smuggle migrants from Syria to Europe have been arrested.
Spanish police have detained 16 Syrians and three Moroccans who are believed to be part of a larger criminal network that charged for what has been described as a “VIP” service.
The arrests were made as part of an operation by the Spanish National Police and German Federal Police, said Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency.
“The criminal network is suspected of organising over 68 illegal transfers, and the consequent smuggling of more than 550 Syrian migrants into the EU,” said Europol.
Five vehicles, smartphones, computers and memory sticks along with about €10,000 ($11,000) in cash and various documents were seized.
According to Europol, the apprehended gang was closely connected to other traffickers smuggling people from Asia and Africa towards Europe.
The close-knit network would transfer migrants between traffickers from one country to another and also arrange the collection and distribution of criminal profits using the Hawala banking system.
The total price for the journey from Syria to the final European destination totalled more than €20,000 ($22,000), says Europol.
The agency said migrants paid €4,000 ($4,400) to travel by air from Beirut to Egypt and €3500 ($3850) to get from there to Algeria via Libya and Tunis overland.
They were then charged €10,000 ($11,000) to be taken from the Algerian to Almeria and Murcia in Spain by and then via land to the cities Madrid, Cuenca and Toledo.
This was described as a “VIP service” by Europol that included a transfer from the arrival point on the Spanish mainland, as well as accommodation there, and took an “unusually long and expensive route”.
In Libya, the smugglers allegedly used corrupt officials to arrange the transfer to Algeria, where the migrants were transported to Spain on high-speed boats.
“The criminal network implemented stringent security measures to ensure the successful outcome of its illegal operations,” said the agency.
“The suspects had placed physical and video surveillance at several clandestine points along the coast where the irregular migrants were expected to be brought.”
Once in Spain, they were then charged up to €2,000 ($2,200) to be taken from Germany to Norway.
Europol said those being smuggled were kept in “unsanitary conditions, putting migrants’ health at risk from their clandestine entry into Spain until their departure towards their final destination via land or air”.
The suspects are alleged to have facilitated the transferral of migrants to Madrid airport while arranging tickets to destinations in Western and Northern Europe, mainly Germany and Norway.
Last month, a police operation led to the arrest of 15 people who are suspected of being part of the broader smuggling network, led by a Syrian.