Judicial and law enforcement authorities in Italy, Greece and Albania have taken a coordinated action against a network of people smugglers, which transferred at least 1 100 migrants irregularly to the European Union. During an action day with the support of Eurojust, Europol and Frontex, 29 suspects were arrested in the three countries involved. They allegedly made illegal gains of at least several hundreds of millions of euros. The action is the concrete result of a joint investigation team (JIT) which was set up in January 2021 with the support and funding of Eurojust.
The suspects are of Albanian, Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi and Pakistani origin. Eight of them were arrested during a smuggling operation that was ongoing, with the migrants involved brought to safety. The suspects belong to a wider network of approximately 80 persons who were involved in at least 30 bigger irregular transfers of migrants from Turkey via Albania and Greece to the Salento coast of Italy. From Italy, the migrants were later transferred to other EU countries. The transfers to Italy took place by vessel and or by vehicle over land via the so-called Eastern Mediterranean route.
Of the arrested persons, four are allegedly the main perpetrators, leading separate cells or groups of the network. One of them was mainly responsible for the return of the smugglers to Turkey, where they could prepare for new transfers. The gains of the irregular migration transfers are preliminarily estimated to be at least several hundreds of millions of euros, with the smugglers using the ‘Hawala’ financing system to hide the proceeds.
In preparation for the action day, the authorities carried out long-term surveillance of the suspects, using telephone and online interceptions of evidence and video recordings. This enabled them to document the routes used by the network and identify the perpetrators. Today’s operation is one of the first operational implementations of Eurojust’s commitment to fight migrant smuggling, as specified during the Annual Meeting on Migrant Smuggling, organised by the Agency in November 2021.
Eurojust not only supported the joint investigation team but also set up a coordination centre during the action day and provided cross-border judicial support via the Agency’s Italian and Greek National Desks, as well as the Liaison Prosecutor for Albania at the Agency. Europol provided additional analytical support to the operation and deployed mobile offices, with Frontex assisting with surveillance via an Italian Guardia di Finanza helicopter deployed to control the EU’s external borders.
The operation was carried out under the direction of the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of the Public Prosecutor's Office of Lecce in Italy, the Public Prosecutor's Office of the Court of Appeal of Athens, the Special Investigative Judge for Mutual Legal Assistance in criminal matters at the Court of First Instance of Athens and the Special Anti-Corruption and Organized Crime Prosecutor's Office of Tirana (SPAK).
Support on the ground was given by the Organized Crime Investigation Group (GICO) of Lecce and the Central Organised Crime Investigation Service (SCICO) of the Guardia di Finanza, the Attica Police – Immigration Division – of Athens and the Albanian State Police.