Belgian and Spanish police have broken up a modern slavery gang that forced Moroccan and Spanish victims to work for almost no pay while living in housing unfit for human habitation.
The Europol-backed operation saw law enforcement officers in both countries arrest a total of 15 people after carrying out a number of raids on 28 properties.
Investigators identified 23 potential victims of human trafficking and modern slavery from both Spain and Morocco, who were offered care and assistance from a specialist charity.
The organised crime group behind the scam is said to have targeted adverts for well-paid work in the Belgian construction industry at Moroccan construction workers in Spain.
Once the workers arrived in Belgium, they were forced to live in appalling conditions and work for next to nothing.
“Europol actively supported this extensive and complex investigation; organising operational meetings, facilitating the exchange of intelligence and providing analytical support to Belgium and Spain throughout the case,” Europol said in a statement.
“During the arrest phase, Europol specialists in trafficking human beings and illegal immigration undertook real-time cross-checks of the data gathered using a mobile office and data extraction device.”
In its latest Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment, Europol warned that human trafficking for the purposes of labour exploitation is expected to increase over the course of this year.
Europe’s law enforcement agency predicts that organised crime groups will continue to prey on the large number of vulnerable people travelling to Europe as a result of the migrant crisis, pushing victims into forced labour and prostitution.
As well being a particularly unpleasant ordeal for victims, labour exploration has a knock on effect of lowering wages paid in the legitimate economy and stifling growth, according to Europol.
“The involvement of organised crime groups in the trafficking of human beings for labour exploitation is increasing in the EU,” according to the report.
“Organised crime groups cater to the growing demand for cheap labour across many member states and have access to a large number of potential victims.
“The trafficking of human beings for labour exploitation threatens to infiltrate the legal economy, where it lowers wages and hampers economic growth.”
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that almost 21 million people across the globe are victims of forced labour, including some 5.5 million children.
While the type of “employment” victims are forced to enter varies by country and region, many suffer both physical and mental abuse at the hands of their traffickers, living in terrible conditions while receiving low or no pay.
Urging banks to do more to halt the trafficking of people and modern slavery by reporting transactions that might suggest suspicious activity, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd said in March: “This barbaric crime affects every country and this funding will protect those who risk being trafficked to our shores or who suffer intolerable cruelty to make the products we buy.”