THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The European Union police agency launched a new team Tuesday to crack down on the organized crime gangs that smuggle tens of thousands of migrants across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.
The new team based at Europol's headquarters in The Hague will analyze and share intelligence gathered by the EU border agency Frontex, Interpol and EU member police forces to identify and track smuggling networks.
In an example of the work the team will do, Europol announced it had helped Greek authorities who arrested 16 suspected human traffickers last week.
The suspects are accused of arranging travel for 350 migrants, mostly Syrians, who paid up to 9,000 euros ($9,500) each to get from Turkey to the Greek islands and then onward to mainland Europe using forged travel documents.
"By establishing a permanent network of operational officers ... I expect that we'll be doing those kinds of operations more often on a bigger scale so we can have a bigger overall impact on reducing this problem," Europol Director Rob Wainwright told The Associated Press.
The scale of the human trafficking trade is vast and the risks are high for migrants desperate to reach Europe. Europol says 220,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean last year, costing 3,000 migrants their lives. A further 1,000 have died already this year.
Linking with Interpol gives the Europol team intelligence beyond Europe's borders and into the chaotic North African region that is the jumping off point for many migrants fleeing conflicts in countries like Syria and Iraq.
Wainwright said it's hard to build law enforcement relationships with such countries, "which makes it even more important ... that at least within Europe we come together in a stronger way. At least in Europe we can do what we can to identify those people that are behind this terrible trade."