Suspected Iraqi-Kurdish people-smuggling network smashed by police

Gang put migrants' lives in danger by taking them across the English Channel in flimsy boats, authorities claim

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Raids across Europe by hundreds of police officers have dismantled an alleged people-smuggling operation that transported migrants across the English Channel in flimsy boats.

German police raided properties and warehouses in four states used by the Iraqi–Kurdish network. The smugglers are suspected of charging migrants from the Middle East and East Africa thousands of euros each to take the perilous journey from France to the UK, in death-trap vessels.

More than 660 German Federal Police officers, thought to include the elite GSG9 special forces unit, were involved in the Europol-run operation, which led to 25 arrests. A further 15 arrests were made in Belgium and France. The investigation, under a task force named 'Wave', has lasted a year and half.

Life jackets and fuel cans were seized by German police. Earlier this year, dinghies and engines were confiscated.

The arrests come after the conviction of an asylum seeker in the UK over the deaths of four migrants who drowned in the English Channel when a flimsy inflatable boat he was piloting sank.

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser praised the operation which she said “deals a big and important blow to these unscrupulous criminals, who put people’s lives on the line for the sake of their profit”.

Europol said the "investigation focused on an Iraqi-Kurdish network suspected of smuggling Middle-Eastern and East African irregular migrants from France to the UK with the use of low-quality inflatable boats".

Germany's Interior Ministry said the raids were carried out under 25 European arrest warrants in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hesse, Bavaria and Schleswig-Holstein.

Officers swooped on 28 properties in cities including Dusseldorf and Cologne, where the apartment of a suspected smuggler was searched.

Ms Faeser revealed that “more than 660 federal police officers were deployed” in the raids.

“In the past few months, federal police have already secured materials such as inflatable dinghies and engines, which were meant to be used for trafficking across the English Channel to the UK. Fighting organised smuggling crime is a very high priority for us,” she said.

Meanwhile, Italian police said on Wednesday they had arrested 12 suspected human traffickers for allegedly organising high-speed transfers o at least 73 illegal migrants from Tunisia to Europe.

Expert pilots operated the speed boats crossing from Tunisia to Marsala in Sicily between June and September last year, police said in a statement, describing them as "VIP trips".

The traffickers transported relatively small groups of up to 20 people on each of four trips, charging fees of up to €6,000 ($6,500) per person. Normally migrants are charged €1,000 to travel on overcrowded and dangerous boats.

An investigation by The National previously revealed how boats made in Turkey using flimsy materials are transported across Europe then used by criminal gangs to take migrants across the Channel. At least 27 people including a pregnant woman and three children died when a boat sank in 2021.

The arrests in Europe come after Ibrahima Bah was found guilty of the manslaughter of the migrants, who had paid thousands of euros to smugglers for a spot in an overcrowded vessel.

During his trial jurors were told the home-made, low-quality inflatable should have had no more than 20 people on board but tried to carry at least 43 people across the Channel.

Last year, a trafficking kingpin who smuggled 10,000 migrants across the English Channel in small boats, earning up to £260,000 per trip, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in Belgium.

Hewa Rahimpur, 30, arrived in the UK in the back of a lorry, then claimed asylum and investigators say he turned to people-smuggling when he saw the profits that could be made after paying to come to Britain.

The UK’s National Crime Agency seized 60 boats and hundreds of life jackets from a warehouse in Germany used by the criminal operation run by Rahimpur from his house in east London.

The NCA, the UK's equivalent of the FBI, said he had a callous disregard for people's safety, with migrants being lured by adverts posted openly on social media.

Rahimpur was arrested in May 2022 and was extradited to Belgium, where he stood trial in Bruges.

Updated: February 22, 2024, 2:26 PM