Turkish police have arrested 20 members of an international migrant-smuggling organisation, including one of Europe’s most wanted traffickers, Turkish police have said.
Akbar Omar Tawfeeq, the suspected leader of the crime syndicate, and others were captured on May 25 during a joint operation conducted by police and intelligence agencies, officials said in a news briefing in Istanbul on Wednesday.
At least 569 migrants were caught and judicial authorities confiscated six vehicles, six boats and numerous life vests belonging to Tawfeeq’s organisation, police officials said.
The crackdown came after an investigation led by Istanbul’s chief public prosecutor, who suggested that the organisation smuggled migrants from Afghanistan and northern Iraq, to Greece, Italy and other European countries in return for large sums of money.
The prosecutor’s report also found that the group smuggled migrants stuck in Greece to other European Union countries, as a second route across Europe.
Thousands of undocumented migrants are believed to have been smuggled, according to the officials.
Authorities conducted a process of technical surveillance and tracked the suspects’ movements in countries such as Ukraine, England and Italy, in coordination with local authorities.
The organisation is thought to have received an average of 3,000 to 5,000 euros ($3,340-$5,570) per migrant, with an average of 2 million euros ($2,2m) per year.
The investigators suggested the leadership of the organisation mostly hailed from northern Iraq, where they allegedly conducted their business under strict hierarchical structures.
According to the police officials, only migrants who had a reference were smuggled and subcontractors were often hired for this illegal activity.
The officials said Tawfeeq and his organisation had established links in European countries such as Italy and Greece, through their coordination with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Syrian Kurdish fighter group (YPG) – that Turkey claims is PKK’s Syrian branch.
During surveillance by the Department Combating Migrant Smuggling and Human Trafficking and Turkish Intelligence (MIT) Istanbul Directorate, police officials said they learned that Tawfeeq was among Europe’s most wanted migrant traffickers.
His recently acquired Dominican Republic passport indicated he had plans to expand his business to the Americas, the prosecutor’s office said.
As the related authorities detected that the leaders of the organisation were planning to move abroad, the first-wave operation was carried out jointly by the Turkish special forces on Saturday, in Istanbul and four other provinces.
Coast Guard Command also caught a boat attempting to flee, officials said.
After home searches, vehicles and ships registered to the suspects’ names were seized, in addition to digital and other incriminating material, MIT said.
Dozens of mobile phones, sim cards in different brands, organisational documents, drugs, and sizeable amounts of euros and US dollars were also seized.
Alessandro Politi, director of NATO Defence College Foundation (NDCF) in Italy, told Al Jazeera that migrant smuggling was a global problem.
“Each time police cooperation goes beyond political barriers is a plus. Migrant smuggling is not only a problem for the Mediterranean but the whole world,” he said.