Bihac in Bosnia was reportedly the logistic hub from where the smugglers operated. Photo from file: Migrants outside an abandoned factory in Bihac on January 10, 2021 | Photo: Marko Djurica/Reuters
Bihac in Bosnia was reportedly the logistic hub from where the smugglers operated. Photo from file: Migrants outside an abandoned factory in Bihac on January 10, 2021 | Photo: Marko Djurica/Reuters

Spanish police have broken up a gang that smuggled hundreds of migrants across the Balkans into the European Union, cramming them in trucks in inhumane conditions. Police in nine countries were involved in the operation, authorities said on Thursday.

The network allegedly smuggled at least 400 Pakistanis into the European Union through the Balkans during the last eight months, cramming them into the back of trucks and charging them up to €20,000 each for the journey.

Each truck usually carried more than 50 people in a space the size of 8 square meters, Spain's national police said at a press conference on Thursday (November 4). In one case there were 77 people including four children packed into the tight back compartment of a small truck, as shown in photo evidence.

Police images showed how 77 people, including four children, were crammed into the filthy cargo compartment of a small truck | Source: Keyframe from Reuters video
Police images showed how 77 people, including four children, were crammed into the filthy cargo compartment of a small truck | Source: Keyframe from Reuters video

The migrants smuggled by the group were transported in "life-threatening situations … at high speed on European motorways," said Europol representative Marius Cristian Roman. In some cases migrants had to drill holes in the back of a truck to breathe, police were quoted as saying by news agency AP.

EU-wide operation

Police in nine countries were involved in the months-long investigation: Spain, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Italy, Greece, Italy and Romania, with the EU crime agency Europol in support, AP reports.

Fifteen people, including 12 Spanish nationals, have been detained in the case. Europol classified the ringleader, who was arrested in Romania, as a "high-value target." His nationality was not disclosed, however, Reuters reported that he was transferred to Spain.

Also read: 'Migrants, drugs and money': Spotlight on illicit business in the Western Balkans

From file: A Pakistani migrant in Vučjak, Bosnia | Photo: Jelena Prtoric for InfoMigrants
From file: A Pakistani migrant in Vučjak, Bosnia | Photo: Jelena Prtoric for InfoMigrants

Logistic hub in Bosnia

According to investigators, the people smugglers gathered migrants in Pakistan and sent them to the EU through the Balkans. The Bihac refugee camp in Bosnia was the main logistic hub for the network, according to Spanish police and Europol. It was unclear, however, how the migrants got to Bosnia in the first place.

Authorities said that migrants crossed the mountains separating Bosnia from EU member state Croatia on foot, escorted by smugglers. Spanish truck drivers then transported the Pakistani migrants to the Croatia-Slovenia border.

There, migrants had to walk again and rejoined the truck only once they were inside Slovenian territory. From there they were taken to their final destinations in the EU, reports AP.

Expensive journeys across Europe

Smugglers charged €300 per person to journey from Bosnia to Slovenia, police said. From Bosnia to Italy it was another €5,000 - €8,000, and the full package from Pakistan to the final EU destination country ranged from €12,000 to €20,000.

The trucks were reportedly rented in Spain, and the truck drivers were fully aware of the type of cargo they were carrying. A car accompanied each truck to warn them of possible controls ahead, according to Spanish police reports.

It is estimated that the criminal gang, which is alleged to be associated with drug trafficking operations as well, earned at least €2 million from trafficking around 400 people into the EU in recent months. Police spokespeople, however, pointed out that the total number of migrants smuggled into the bloc this wayis likely much higher, as they had been operating undetected for years. 

Also read: Balkan route: 144 suspected migrant smugglers arrested

With Reuters, AP

 

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