Europol seeks more African cooperation in fight against people smugglers

People smugglers are diversifying their criminal portfolios, adding drugs trafficking, money laundering and counterfeiting to their list of illegal activities. [Naval Surface Warriors/ Flickr]

No other illegal business is more lucrative: half a million people smugglers appear in Europol’s database and the number is only rising. Police are now counting on Africa to help. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Turkish, Syrian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Egyptian members make up a network of smugglers that is now as a big as any multinational company and which does not care about the religion or background of its ’employees’.

Their operation is a business that is only becoming more and more lucrative. That is because more than 90% of migrants entering Europe use such networks, Europol claimed recently. Demand is on the up too.

That is why the European Police Office, Europol, has been making preparations for more than a year. Last year it launched the European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC) to help the member states dismantle these networks.

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EMSC serves as an extension of the Joint Operation Team Mare (JOT), a Hague-based operation set up in 2015. Since then, the outfit has identified around 50,000 smugglers, reported EMSC chief Robert Crepinko yesterday (23 March), in front of the European Parliament’s justice committee.

He explained that organised bands of criminals are now using social media more and more to find their “customers”. Increasing numbers of documents are forged and services sold on online. “More than 1,000 social media channels are used for this purpose, to our knowledge,” Crepinko warned.

Arndt Sinn of Osnabrück University’s Centre for European and International Criminal Law Studies (ZEIS), who worked on Europol’s Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA), warned that “on the so-called dark net, criminals operate on impersonal networks” with impunity.

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Since the closure of the Balkan route, the main area of operation for the people smugglers is the central Mediterranean route. Organised smuggling there, according to a 9 March Europol report, is one of the fastest growing criminal sectors.

Almost all groups involved are now multinational. The report also claims that up to 45% of those groups diversify their illegal activities, supplementing their operations with counterfeiting, drug dealing and money laundering.

An important aspect of the operation set up to tackle these networks is cooperation with other organisations like Interpol and Frontex, who help provide Europol with valuable data, Crepinko explained. The aim, ultimately, is not just to stop the criminals but the people and groups backing their operations.

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That is why the EMSC wants to extend its reach beyond the EU as soon as possible. Even though Europol already has boots on the ground in hotspots in Italy and Greece, “partners in Africa are needed, who can take action against organised crime”, Crepinko insisted.

Currently, there is no collaboration with law enforcement agencies in Africa, according to Europol. But some of the continent’s nations are interested in cooperating in the future, Crepinko revealed, without naming specific countries.

Some lawmakers, like Spain’s Agustín Díaz (EPP), only see an opportunity for change if hotspots in southern Europe are moved into Africa.

But others are more sceptical and the S&D group’s spokeswoman on the justice committee, Birgit Sippel, said that the focus on police cooperation with third countries is not enough.

“In the fight against smugglers, we need more information on the situation in transit countries,” she warned. But the question remains: is there any real interest in those countries to dismantle the criminal networks?

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