A cross-border operation, coordinated by Europol and involving law enforcement authorities from Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, Poland and the UK, has led to the dismantling of an organised crime network smuggling migrants from Belarus into the EU. In addition to the arrests and house searches carried out during the action day, Estonian and Lithuanian law enforcement authorities carried out checks on vehicles travelling on internal roads and crossing external borders. The operational activities were carried out in the framework of Europol’s Operational Task Force Flow, set up to tackle migrant smuggling networks active along the EU-Belarus border.
The action day on 13 July led to:
- Operational activities, checks and preventive measure in Estonia, Germany, Lithuania and Poland;
- 11 arrests (10 in Poland and 1 in the UK based on a German warrant);
- 1 high-value target arrested in the UK based on a German warrant;
- 28 locations searched (2 in Germany, 4 in Lithuania and 22 in Poland);
- 11 transfers detected with 11 facilitators and 60 migrants;
- 7 in Lithuania with 7 facilitators (nationals of Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Syria, Ukraine and Uzbekistan) and 44 migrants, all Iraqi nationals;
- 4 in Poland with 4 facilitators (nationals of Georgia, Syria and Ukraine) and 16 migrants (2 Afghan, 2 Indian, 8 Iraqi and 4 Syrian nationals);
- Seizures include electronic equipment, various documents, evidence of money transfers, and cash.
Up to EUR 13 000 to be smuggled from Iraq to the EU via Belarus
The investigation detected 99 incidents of the illegal transportation of migrants and discovered 662 migrants smuggled by the targeted network, part of which was uncovered during the action day on 13 July. The same criminal network had previously taken a hit in January 2022, when Polish authorities arrested 20 suspects and seized more than the equivalent of EUR 500 000 cash in euros and dollars. The criminal group consisted of Syrian and Turkish nationals. They recruited the migrants from Iraq and arranged their transportation from Iraq/Baghdad into the EU.
The members of the criminal network were based in and acting from the countries across the smuggling route. Their tasks were divided hierarchically, with the majority of the individuals acting at different levels not knowing each other personally. The migrants paid between EUR 10 000 and EUR 13 000 for a full smuggling service from their country of origin, via Belarus, to Germany generating an estimated turnover of at least EUR 7 million for the criminal network. These payments were made via the hawala underground financial system. Hawaladars with residence in Berlin (Germany) also executed the payments for the drivers after receiving a proof of completion, such as pictures of migrants after arrival in their final destination.
The criminal network used Turkey as a transit country and logistical hub. Once in Turkey, the migrants legally travelled to Moscow with tourist visas, from where they were then transferred to the Belarusian capital Minsk, or Grodno, a city near the borders with Lithuania and Poland. From there, the migrants were then smuggled to Germany via Poland and Lithuania.
The criminal network used three smuggling routes, each with an EU end destination:
- From Iraq via Turkey to Belarus, and then towards Poland and Germany;
- From Iraq via Turkey, then via Russia and Belarus, towards Latvia and Germany, and;
- From Iraq via Turkey, then via Russia and Belarus towards Lithuania, Poland and Germany.
For the final transfer towards the EU, the criminal network recruited drivers, mainly Ukrainian nationals, via web forums and social media platforms. For their services on this last leg of the smuggling route, from Poland to Germany, they charged between EUR 500 and 1 000 per person.
The criminal network often transported the migrants in life-threatening conditions, such as overcrowded vehicles and even closed cars on loading platforms. In October 2021, German authorities found the body of a migrant close to the border. The forensic examination suggested that the smugglers abandoned him in an empty field after suffering bad health conditions, where he then died off a multiple organ failure.
Dedicated Task Force at Europol to support the crisis response
In June 2021, Lithuanian law enforcement reported an increase of the illegal migration inflow across the Belarus-Lithuanian border. Authorities in Poland and Latvia reported the same. In response, Lithuania set up a Joint Investigative Cell (JIC) in Vilnius to serve as an operational hub that would facilitate the cooperation between involved national law enforcement authorities.
In addition to this cell, in February 2022, Europol set-up the Operational Taskforce Flow (OTF) Flow, involving Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. This special set-up was created specifically to support national authorities in combating the increased migrant smuggling activities across the EU-Belarus border. Through OTF Flow, Europol supports the coordination of joint operational activities and facilitates the information exchange between law enforcement authorities. The OTF operates from Vilnius, and is composed of representatives from national law enforcement authorities and Europol experts.
During this week’s action day on 13 July 2022, Europol deployed, in addition to the staff already send to the OTF/JIC, three experts to Lithuania and Poland to cross-check in real time operation information against Europol’s databases, perform digital forensics, and support the investigators in the field with new leads.
Law enforcement authorities involved:
- Estonia – Estonian Police and Border Guard (Politsei- ja Piirivalveamet)
- Germany – German Federal Police (Bundespolizei)
- Lithuania – State Border Guard Service (Valstybės sienos apsaugos tarnyba) and National Police (Lietuvos policija)
- Poland – Border Guard (Polska Straż Graniczna) and National Police (Polska Policja)
- The United Kingdom – National Crime Agency (NCA) and National Extradition Unit
Source – Europol