Italian and Albanian police on Wednesday arrested 47 people, 25 in Albania and 22 in Italy and one in Greece, on suspicion of smuggling migrants through the Balkans from Greece into Europe.
Almost all the hundreds of migrants were landed on the Salento coast in Puglia, police said.
Greek police helped in the operation, code-named Astrolabe.
The probe began in the middle of the first COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020.
Authorities believe that the suspects, mainly of Iraqi and Syrian origin, are part of a criminal network of about 80 members that is allegedly responsible for at least 30 sea smuggling operations.
The criminal group operated migrant smuggling activities from Turkey to the Salento coast of Italy via Albania and Greece, then to other EU countries. The investigation started with the detection of an ongoing smuggling operation, which saw the successful rescue of the transported migrants and the arrest of eight low-level smugglers.
The criminal networks primarily used sea routes for the transfer of migrants from Turkey, via the Eastern Mediterranean road, to their final EU destinations.
The sea transfers were performed with the use of leisure vessels, mainly yachts, acquired or rented by the criminal network and skippered by novice seamen purposely recruited by the network.
The suspects used informal money transfer services such as the hawala system to receive payments from migrants, with their illegal profits estimated at several hundred million euros.
Photo – Italian Financial Corps (Guardia di Finanza) during one of the raids. EUROPOL
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