European law enforcement officials say they are tracking at least 65,000 migrant smugglers, twice as many as at the height of the refugee crisis three years ago, as the illegal trade booms.
Despite a drop in the number of migrants successfully crossing the Mediterranean since Europe’s biggest crisis since World War II erupted in 2015, the EU police agency Europol said demand for smugglers was still “huge.”
Many new suspects have been identified, Europol added, as investigators in European nations track one of the fastest growing forms of international organized crime.
“At the end of last year, we had 65,000 smugglers in our databases,” Europol European Migrant Smuggling Centre head Robert Crepinko said at his offices in The Hague, Netherlands.
Europol reported in September 2015 that there were about 30,000 suspected smugglers before the number jumped to nearly 55,000 by the end of 2016, then added about 10,000 more last year.
Sixty-three percent of those whose nationalities it has identified are from Europe, including 45 percent from Balkan nations, Europol data showed.
Fourteen percent are from the Middle East, 13 percent from Africa, 9 percent from eastern Asia and 1 percent from the Americas.
Crepinko said smuggling is “still a booming business” worth billions of euros, despite a drop in migrant arrivals last year following EU cooperation deals with Turkey and Libya, the main gateways to Europe.
Libya is the main migrant springboard to Europe, where reports of enslavement on top of other horrific abuses of sub-Saharan Africans prompted action at an EU-Africa summit in Abidjan in November last year.
Thousands of migrants were quickly repatriated from Libya to their home nations under a deal reached at the meeting.
However, Crepinko said further law enforcement cooperation depends on obtaining guarantees that human rights would be respected, a challenge when dealing with many African governments.
“That’s why there will be no quick wins in that,” he said.
Since last year, Europol has been operating on a new legal basis that restricts information it can share with non-EU nations, but the agency cited successes in cooperation including the breakup of a gang sending young Nigerian women to Spanish cities for prostitution.
Italy, the EU’s main migrant entry point, agreed in December last year to set up a crime-fighting cell with Libya’s western-backed government in Tripoli.
Libya last month announced that it had issued arrest warrants for 205 people, including members of the Libyan security services and embassy officials from African nations over people smuggling.
Amnesty International’s Libya researcher Marwa Mohamed said the move, which resulted from Italian and Libyan cooperation, could be a step toward ending the sense of “total impunity” in Libya.
Mohamed, based in Tunisia, said Amnesty was checking whether the “authorities follow through with arrests and prosecutions in proceedings that guarantee a fair trial.”
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