An international law enforcement operation against migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings, coordinated by Europol, has led to the arrest of 29 suspected migrant smugglers. Those arrested are thought to be part of an organised crime network responsible for facilitating deadly journeys for Pakistani migrants across the Mediterranean Sea, as well as labour exploitation.
The international joint action on 24 and 25 October saw the participation of 365 police officers from Spain and Poland, who carried out 60 inspections of restaurants run by members of the criminal network and 51 house searches, in both Spain (23) and Poland (28). A large amount of evidence was seized including documentation, equipment used for preparing forged documents, and communication devices.
Europol's Joint Operational Team (JOT) Mare, provided assistance to the Guardia Civil, Spanish National Police and the Polish Border Guard during the operation, known as Shafat-Turkeba. The work targeted a Pakistani organised crime group who were involved in facilitating the irregular migration of Pakistani citizens to the EU using Mediterranean Sea routes (Libya-Italy and Turkey-Greece) and, for those that survived the crossings, their further labour exploitation in restaurants throughout Spain.
The long-running investigation began when Spanish law enforcement authorities learnt of the existence of a criminal network that was exploiting Pakistani migrants in semi-slavery conditions in Pakistani-run kebab restaurants. The irregular migrants received no salary, holidays or social security benefits, and were working long shifts under abusive conditions. This labour exploitation was the way in which the migrants had to pay back their debts to the criminal network for the journeys they had undertaken from Pakistan, and the forged or fake passports and ID cards they had been supplied with.
The migrants, who were treated like 'goods', paid around EUR 14 000 each to the criminal network for transport to Europe. In return, the facilitators offered them places in often unseaworthy boats, travelling across the Mediterranean. The criminal syndicate offered 'packages' to the migrants, which involved using forged documents to apply for residence permits, to register at the relevant city hall and to claim social security benefits. Residence permit applications were often linked to fake job offers, to work for the kebab restaurants in Spain.
Investigators became aware of one of several routes and modus operandi used by the criminal network, and an incident (on 15 August) of a migrant dying while confined in inhumane conditions in a ship's hold. The identified ship and surviving migrants were consequently rescued by the Italian Navy. However more than 40 people had died in the same hold, when they were overcome by engine fumes after the boat sprung a leak as a result of its poor condition. These victims had paid half the fee of those travelling on deck but were packed into a space that had no access to ventilation or toilets.
Some of the profits earned by the criminal organisation were invested in opening new restaurants in different Spanish provinces, which were also used for the further labour exploitation of migrants. The remaining illegal profits were sent back to Pakistan through money wires, impersonating the identities of the exploited migrants without their consent.
This Spanish arm of the criminal organisation was in close contact with another part of the gang based in Poland. The group used a network of companies to fraudulently obtain work and residence permits by submitting fraudulent documents and statements. On 24 October 2015, the Polish Border Guards searched 28 premises. Six motor vehicles were seized and 60 foreign nationals had the legality of their stays checked; three of them were consequently arrested.
Europol's JOT Mare team provided continuous support to the Spanish and Polish investigations by facilitating the development of intelligence and criminal analysis, and by providing operational support during the common action days. Three JOT Mare experts were deployed on the spot (two in Spain, one in Poland), together with the Europol mobile office. Europol's analytical support resulted in the identification of links between this criminal group and previously-investigated organised criminal groups involved in the same criminal acts in Spain, using a similar modus operandi. Links made with other ongoing EU cases will be further explored.