After police raids in the Bulgarian capital Sofia and in the eastern region of the country, 17 suspected people smugglers were arrested and taken into custody by the authorities. The Deputy Prosecutor General, who has already broken up other similar rings, is investigating the group and their reach further.
Deputy Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev said at a press conference on Monday in the Bulgarian capital Sofia that the law enforcement authorities had “dismantled an illegal immigrant smuggling gang and arrested more than 17 suspected traffickers.” His words were reported by the Sofia news agency Novinite.
According to several news agencies, the group is part of a larger international network but was operating on Bulgarian territory. It is believed they were trafficking migrants, mostly from Afghanistan, to Western Europe. The German news agency dpa reported that the majority of the suspected smugglers also came from Afghanistan and Iraq. The migrants are thought to have paid the group thousands of euros a piece to be smuggled further up the so-called ‘Balkan route.’
At the press conference, Geshev explained that the group concentrated on organizing migrants’ illegal entry from Turkey to Bulgaria, then provided them with accommodation and transport to the next border, with Serbia.
Novinite news quoted Geshev, saying the organization was a “trading company for the trafficking of migrants, which is an illegal activity.” Although he has been involved in other similar cases, including a trial of those accused of smuggling cars and money to Syria via the Hawala money transfer system in January, he said that it was the first time that he had seen such a “complex, large-scale organization.”
Geshev estimated that the group may have been smuggling hundreds of people per month, although the exact numbers will only emerge after further investigation. According to dpa, he has also not ruled out the possibility that some border officials may also have facilitated the smuggling in some way.
The Bulgarian interior ministry states that it arrested 689 migrants trying to enter the country illegally in 2018. Bulgaria is one of the poorest countries in the EU and most migrants are not intending to stay in the country, seeing it purely as a transit land. According to dpa, Bulgaria’s refugee and migrant camps are "almost empty."