Police in Italy have broken up an organised migrant smuggling gang that charged people €1,000 each to be trafficked into France in the back of overloaded vehicles.
The operation was part of a two-year investigation into multiple smuggling incidents, and resulted in officers issuing more than 30 arrest warrants, around half of which targeted suspects living outside of Italy.
After paying the smugglers their fee, migrants were either crammed into wooden crates and loaded onto the back of trucks, or concealed in car boots. The gang is said to have helped hundreds of people enter various European countries.
Having arrived in Italy after making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, migrants from countries including Egypt, Eritrea, Syria and Sudan travelled onto Milan, which the gang used as its base. From there, the traffickers moved their victims to the northern city of Ventimiglia, from where they were smuggled across the border into France.
Some locals have dubbed Ventimiglia Italy’s “mini-Calais”, comparing it to the home of the notorious Jungle camp in the north of France that was dismantled last October.
Italian police said the gang was headed up by Egyptian smugglers, who were assisted by nationals from Somalia, Afghanistan, Tunisia and Eritrea, as well as a number of Italians. Officers documented 62 smuggling attempts by the gang during the course of their investigation, some of which involved as many as 40 migrants travelling in “inhumane conditions” in the back of lorries.
Discussing one smuggling attempt interrupted by police, Milan prosecutor Ilda Boccassini noted that some migrants were experiencing difficulty breathing when they were discovered as a result of the appalling conditions they were being transported in. She said the trafficking gang treated its victims as little more than “cannon fodder”.
Another smuggling operation disputed by police involved an Italian man attempting to sneak 17 migrants across the French border in the back of a refrigerated mini-van.
Interior Minister Marco Minniti congratulated police on the investigation, commenting: “This operation was particularly important, coming down hard on the unscrupulous [migrant smuggling gangs] who exploit people in serious difficulties and put their lives at risk for personal gain.”
News of the operation comes just days after Italian police revealed they had detained the leaders of a people smuggling gang that shipped African migrants into Europe and forced women into the sex trade on their arrival.
Officers said the group, which was based in Padua in northern Italy, ran an “extremely lucrative” operation, subjecting its victims to all manner of abuse while smuggling them it Europe from Libya, before forcing some of them into prostitution.
It is estimated that a record of more than 180,000 migrants arrived in Italy last year, an increase from the previous all-time high of 170,100 arrivals in 2014.