Bulgarian authorities have broken up a major organised crime ring thought to have smuggled thousands of migrants from Afghanistan en route to western Europe, prosecutors said yesterday.
The gang smuggled the migrants -- predominantly boys under the age of 16 -- over the Maritsa river bordering Turkey and helped them cross illegally through the forests into Serbia, prosecutor Siyka Mileva told journalists.
While authorities have not given an exact figure of how many people were smuggled, they believe the gang was active since early 2017 and Mileva said “there were transfers every week” in groups of “30-40 people at a time”.
In total, eight men have been indicted: an Iraqi man alleged to be the ringleader, one Syrian, four Afghans and two Bulgarians.
They were arrested on Monday in a series of raids in the capital Sofia and the southeastern regions of Burgas and Yambol, Mileva said.
Speaking after the raids, deputy chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev said this was “to date the biggest group for migrant trafficking through Bulgaria” with a level of organisation that made it look like “a company for migrant trafficking”.
The migrants paid between 8,000 and 10,000 euros per person ($9,100-$11,400) via the so called “hawala” system, an informal network of money transfers conducted through face-to-face transactions that is far more difficult to trace than bank transfers.
The operation came as a result of a bigger Europol crackdown on migrant smuggling gangs in several EU countries in October 2017, through which Bulgarian authorities received information about the ring broken up this week.