Human TraffickingNews

21 arrested in hit against migrant smuggling across the EU-Russian border

Coordinated activities of law enforcement authorities from Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden, supported by Europol, targeted a large criminal network smuggling migrants from Belarus and Russia to the EU via the North Baltic route. During this coordinated action day in the framework of Europol’s Operational Task Force (OTF) Flow II, the efforts of the members of the OTF led to the arrests of High Value Targets and other main suspects in Finland, Germany, Lithuania and Poland as well as checks in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The action days between 22 and 24 April led to:
21 arrests of mainly Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian nationals (4 in Finland, 1 in Germany, 1 in Lithuania and 15 in Poland),
24 locations searched (10 in Finland, 8 in Germany, 2 in Lithuania, 1 in the Netherlands and 3 in Poland),
The seizures include vehicles, golden jewellery, electronic equipment, forged ID documents, various other documents, money counting machines, drugs, counterfeit cigarettes and more than EUR 80 000 in cash.

Between EUR 3 000 and EUR 5 000 to enter the EU from Russia

The criminal network, composed mainly of Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian nationals, was very flexible. They adapted their modus operandi and smuggling route quickly, depending on different factors such as visa regulations, natural conditions on the route and taking advantage of the geopolitical situation. The criminal network smuggled the migrants from Iraq via Russia and Belarus to the EU, the main final destination countries were Germany and the United Kingdom. The smugglers used cars, small vans, pickup trucks, and other enclosed vehicles, that are not intended for the transport of people, but exclusively for the transport of goods.

The different criminal groups in the network were connected across borders and well positioned along the smuggling routes, forming an efficient smuggling network. They used shared organisers, drivers and other members dealing with the financial flows through the hawala underground banking system. The main organisers operated clandestine financial flows using the hawala network from regional offices in different countries including Germany, Iraq, Syria and Türkiye. The migrants paid between EUR 3 000 and EUR 5 000 per person depending on the illegal service (smuggling route, transportation means and circumstances). They paid the hawala offices directly, also in cryptocurrencies, while the drivers were paid in cash by local members of the criminal network. Investigations into the financial flows suggest that some of the illegal profits were used for the financing of terrorism.

Migrant smuggling from Belarus and Russia to the EU

In February 2022, Europol set up OTF Flow with an operational base in Vilnius, Lithuania. The OTF led to the dismantling of a criminal network smuggling migrants from Iraq via Türkiye, Russia and Belarus into the EU and the arrests of 9 out of the 11 High Value Targets identified during this investigation. The successful outcome of the first OTF Flow, known as OTF Flow I, led to the continuation of the taskforce under OTF Flow II. New investigations have been launched via OTF Flow II, with the operational planning being adapted to current challenges, changes in smuggling routes and geopolitical developments affecting the criminal landscape. The investigations focused on 12 High Value Targets, the main organisers of the migrant smuggling activities.

OTF Flow is composed of representatives from law enforcement authorities from Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, as well as Europol experts. Previous investigations led to increased cooperation with the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom. This special set-up was created specifically to support national authorities in combatting the increase in migrant smuggling activities across the EU-Belarus border. Through OTF Flow, Europol supports the coordination of joint investigative and operational activities, and facilitates the information exchange between the involved law enforcement authorities. The OTF was created following the Joint Investigative Cell (JIC), set up by Lithuania in June 2021, to tackle the newly-emerged phenomenon of migrant smuggling across the North-Eastern EU border.