By Emma Batha
LONDON, July 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From jet skis to yachts, traffickers are resorting to increasingly innovative ways to smuggle people into Europe, a senior Europol officer said on Tuesday as the police agency launched a taskforce to tackle the lucrative trade.
Criminal gangs are also becoming more violent towards migrants as they seek to maximise profits, said Robert Crepinko, head of Europol's European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC).
The new taskforce, coordinated by EMSC, aims to improve cooperation and information-sharing between the 28 EU member states in order to ramp up the fight against smuggling networks who are constantly changing their routes and modus operandi.
It will help identify syndicates, execute cross-border operations and boost parallel financial investigations focusing on money laundering and asset recovery, Europol said.
Crepinko said increased violence by gangs, new ways of smuggling, the use of fraudulent documents and social media posed an unprecedented challenge.
"People involved in migrant smuggling are far from gentlemen trying to help other people get a better life. They are criminals who will do everything to get their money. They are ruthless," he added.
Crepinko said some traffickers were now using sailing yachts to smuggle migrants from Turkey to Greece or Italy, easily blending in with other leisure vessels enjoying summer in the Mediterranean and Adriatic.
In one case last year, investigators arrested a Moroccan crime gang using jet skis to smuggle migrants to Spain.
Many migrants are transported across Europe huddled together in small concealed compartments in vans and lorries. Some have died in traffic accidents.
Europol received reports of more than 6,600 cases of migrants smuggled in vehicles via the Balkans last year - almost four fifths in risky circumstances, it said.
Nearly 600 migrants have perished trying to cross the Mediterranean in boats so far this year - mostly after setting out from northern Africa, according to U.N. data.
Crepinko said the "deathtraps" traffickers used to smuggle migrants showed the lack of regard for their safety.
"We've seen cases where migrants did not want to go into unseaworthy vessels or other unsafe smuggling means like trucks, but violence or threats with weapons are used to (make) them continue the journey," he added.
"The smugglers are being paid per head so they don't take 'No' for an answer."
He said Europol had also seen a recent increase in people being trafficked by plane using fraudulent documents.
Europol established the EMSC in 2016 amid the migrant crisis when hundreds of thousands of people headed to Europe fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
The centre helped launch more than 5,200 investigations into human trafficking and migrant smuggling last year.
Three years ago most traffickers reported to Europol were EU citizens, but Crepinko said investigators were seeing a growing number of non-EU smuggling networks.
"I'm convinced that there have never been more groups trying to make criminal profits out of this - that's why we have to remain vigilant and step up our efforts," he added.
(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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