Human Trafficking

Targeted: migrant smuggling kingpins with links to more than 180 investigations

An Operational Task Force (OTF), led by the German Federal Police and coordinated by Europol targeted some of the most dangerous migrant smugglers across the EU. The dedicated OTF Pathfinder involved law enforcement authorities from Austria, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and the Netherlands, and led to the opening of 39 new investigations. The latest Action Day on 1 June led to the arrests of two High Value Targets, 12 house searches and seizure of more than EUR 80 000 in Germany and France.

The investigations by the Operation Task Force led so far to:

  • 8 High Value Targets arrested and 3 placed under European Arrest Warrant (2 in Austria, 7 in Germany, 1 in Hungary and 1 in Romania)
  • 127 arrests of facilitators (63 in Austria, 19 in Germany, 15 in Hungary, 25 in Romania, 4 in the Netherlands and 1 in Serbia)
  • 916 smuggling incidents detected (600 in Austria, 262 in Germany, 26 in Hungary, 22 in Romania and 6 in the Netherlands)
  • 151 house searches (37 in Austria, 70 in Germany, 17 in Hungary, 25 in Romania and 2 in the Netherlands)
  • Seizures of different assets with a total value of approx. EUR 900 000

Some of the most dangerous smugglers in the EU targeted by Europol’s OTF Pathfinder

The OTF Pathfinder, set up at Europol in August 2021 and initiated by Germany, targeted some of the most dangerous migrant smugglers active across the EU. These Europol High Value Targets, mainly Syrian nationals, had global connections in source, transit and destination countries. Europol checked its databases and discovered that these suspects are already linked to 150 investigations. Since the launch of the OTF Pathfinder, national law enforcement authorities have initiated 39 new investigations connected to these 14 individuals. One of these connected investigations led to the arrest of one of the High Value Targets by the Italian Financial Corps, supported by the Albanian Police and the Hellenic Police. Another one resulted in 18 suspects arrested in Romania. The suspects were charging between EUR 4 000 and EUR 10 000, despite smuggling and accommodating migrants in extremely poor and often life-threatening conditions. 

The investigative leads revealed that the targets facilitated the smuggling of at least 10 000 migrants, who are mainly of Afghan, Pakistani and Syrian origin, to the EU. Europol facilitated the information exchange and produced a large number of intelligence analysis products, which support the national authorities in connecting these large-scale cross-border criminal activities, identifying perpetrators and detecting ongoing smuggling activities.  

Highly organised and dangerously advertised smuggling services

The investigations uncovered that these suspects were running a large-scale smuggling business, making use of the same logistics, accommodations and travel arrangements. They used cargo bays of lorries, closed vans and personal cars to smuggle migrants from Turkey through the Western Balkans region, Romania and Hungary towards Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. The payments were mainly made via the so-called hawala underground financial system, while at least one of the 14 targets acted as a hawaladar. The suspects used social media platforms to advertise their illegal business and to convince the migrants’ relatives that the smuggling was safe. Facilitators typically need to build up trust among migrant communities in order to recruit as many migrants as possible. The facilitators in this case used short videos to advertise their services and sell their supposedly safe smuggling services. However, some videos show the facilitators using firearms while escorting migrants through the Hungarian border fence. Further to this, the investigations uncovered that many of the migrants were transported in life-threatening conditions, concealed in vans and private cars. In December 2021, Europol organised the first Referral Action Day to remove illicit advertisements of migrant smugglers’ activities.