An international investigation into people smuggling networks has resulted in the arrest 18 men suspected of trafficking migrants from Greece to northern Europe.
More than 100 migrants were rescued from squalid conditions on the island of Crete last Friday as they waited in caves and derelict farm buildings to be shipped by sea to Italy.
According to a statement from the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), which played a leading role in the operation, the suspects detained included Afghan, Egyptian, Greek and Pakistani nationals.
The men, aged between 18 and 23, are thought to be members of a major transnational organised crime group that facilitated the smuggling of migrants seeking to travel onward from Greece to northern Europe.
They were held as part of a joint operation between Hellenic coast guard officials and the NCA.
Investigators claim the gang charged migrants up to €4,000 each to be taken from Athens to Crete, where they would wait to be shipped onward to Italy by boat.
The migrants rescued during the operation are now being cared for by authorities in Greece.
Speaking with reporters on Friday, head of the local coastguard Dimitris Saitakis said the arrests would be a strong blow for organised criminals operating in Crete, Greece’s southernmost island.
Chris Hogben, Deputy Head of the NCA’s Organised Immigration Crime Taskforce Project Invigor, commented: “The migrants, including many women and children, were kept in very poor conditions in caves and squalid farm buildings.
“This NCA’s work in partnership with Greek authorities continues to produce important results. Our close collaboration and intelligence sharing is vital to our ability to protect life and disrupt the criminals making money from people’s misery.
“We will continue to work with our partners around the world and in the UK to pursue organised people smugglers, and take action against them.”
Tens of thousands of migrants are stranded in Greece after the closure of the so-called Balkan route, which refugees had used for onward passage into northern Europe before it was shut off last March.
Separately, Turkish coast guard officials have said they intercepted two migrant boats attempting to reach the Greek island of Chios on Sunday. Officials said the vessels contained women and children from Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Syria.
Despite this, the number of migrants attempting to make the crossing from Turkey to Italy dropped significantly in February and March, according to officials.
Discussing the success of a year-old deal between Turkey and the EU aimed at slowing the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos last week told a press briefing: “The EU-Turkey statement continues to deliver results and numbers of arrivals remain low.
“From an average of 1,700 migrants arriving in Greece a year ago, the average stands today at 47 per day.”