Europol and a coalition of international law enforcement agencies have broken up a people smuggling network that had been trafficking migrants into Europe for more than a decade.
Members of the gang stand accused of helping migrants from countries including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq enter the Schengen area illegally using false documents.
Migrants are thought to have paid the network as much €3,000 for each false document, in a criminal scam that lasted for over 10 years.
The operation – which involved investigators from Spain, Greece and Belgium – resulted in the detention of eight members of the gang, seven of whom were held in Spain.
Investigators raided a total of eight properties – five in Madrid, two in Athens and one in Brussels, resulting in the seizure of €100,000 in cash, various documents, money transfer receipts, data storage devices and mobile phones.
The gang accepted payments through money transfer companies and other third part entities in an effort to prevent its members being identified, Spanish police said.
Operation Yoghi began in 2015 after police in Spain arrested a suspect alleged to have transported forged travel documents between Madrid and Athens.
Detectives discovered the man was a member of an organised crime group involved in migrant smuggling with links in various EU countries.
“The main target and leader of the criminal network, of Syrian nationality, was in charge of supervising the transportation of irregular migrants within different EU countries and towards their final destinations, mainly in Northern Europe,” Europol said in a statement.
“He alternated his residence between Spain and Belgium to avoid detection by the police. His brother, who operated from Greece, was responsible for producing and distributing the forged travel documents for use by the irregular migrants.
“For this, the network possessed a document forgery factory in Greece.”
Travel document fraud has emerged as one of the key criminal activities linked to the migrant crisis, according to Europol’s EU Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment 2017 (SOCTA).
As well as selling smuggling services across the Mediterranean and onward travel towards Northern Europe, people trafficking gangs are increasingly offering desperate migrants the opportunity to buy fake travel documents, the report revealed.
Once inside Europe, migrants can seek to use these papers to achieve legal residence by assuming a false identity.
“Traffickers rely heavily on document fraud to enable their trafficking activities,” according to the assessment.
“This includes the use of fraudulent identity, travel and breeder documents as well as the abuse of legal channels such as the EU visa regime for tourism, study and work visas.
“Organised crime groups involved in the trafficking of human beings also continue to exploit asylum provisions in order to traffic non-EU nationals into the EU.
“On many occasions, victims are provided with fraudulent documents to conceal their real identity and age.”