Italian police arrest 19 in migrant trafficking probe

Italian police on Saturday arrested 19 suspects, dismantling what authorities say was a criminal organization that moved migrants from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan to Italy and then into northern Europe.

The investigation, led by prosecutors in Catania, Sicily, unveiled a network that involved hired or stolen sailboats transporting migrants via Turkey and Greece to Italy. Some then travelled north to the French border and were smuggled by vehicle into France, thanks to human smugglers based in border towns, police said in a statement.

The arrested suspects included Iraqi Kurds, Afghans and Italians, police said.

One of the alleged ring’s bases was in Bari, southern Italy, where false documents were issued indicating the migrants had housing, a requirement for residency permits. Other bases were in Milan and Turin in northern Italy as well as in the town of Ventimiglia, near the French border.

Others allegedly involved in the scheme falsified work contracts so the migrants could successfully apply for permission to reside in Italy, authorities said.

The investigation began in 2018, triggered by the arrival of 10 boats near the eastern Sicilian city of Syracuse. The boats had sailed from Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, and not from Libya, from where for years the majority of the hundreds of thousands of migrants had set out for Italy in traffickers’ unseaworthy vessels.

The investigation ascertained the activities of a network of Italians and foreigners, most of the latter holding residency permits issued on grounds of international protection, the police said. The ring was “dedicated to facilitating the entrance, stay and transit toward northern Europe of migrants coming from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

One suspect, police said, was about to transport migrants from the railroad station at Ventimiglia into France, one of the preferred destination countries for those being smuggled.

Skippers who were engaged to sail the boats to Sicily were paid about 800 euros ($1,200 Cdn)  per crossing, while migrants each paid about 6,000 euros ($9,300 Cdn) to be smuggled from Asia, via Turkey and Greece, into Italy, the police said. The smuggling ring cracked by Italian authorities was an “essential link of connection with criminal groups active in Turkey and Greece,” police said.

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