Recent police operations across central Europe and the Balkans have found hundreds of smuggled migrants and refugees and resulted in the arrest of dozens of people smugglers who sought to profit from tighter border controls.
On Saturday, Greek police announced the arrest of five smugglers as they were ushering 87 Syrian asylum seekers, including 46 children, on to a bus in Thessaloniki.
Police said the smugglers – three Syrians, one Greek and one Iraqi – planned to transport the refugees across the Greek border into Albania, along a route that has become more popular since security on other regional frontiers was tightened in March.
Security services and migration experts say the closure of the main Balkan route north from Turkey through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia into Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia has prompted migrants to take riskier paths and pay more for smugglers' help.
Greek police said the migrants found in Thessaloniki had been asked to pay $5,000 (€4,500) per adult for each stage of their journey. Their route and intended destination were not known.
Also on Saturday, Macedonian police inspected a truck near the country’s northern border with Serbia. Inside they found 73 migrants from
It is not clear whether the Greek and Macedonia discoveries were linked to information gathered from a major international operation, dubbed Sirocco-2, which police from several countries conducted last week.
The 36-hour operation found 30 smuggling incidents and resulted in the arrest of 39 people smugglers, who were transporting 580 migrants.
Europol, the EU police agency, said the operation involved police and border management forces from Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Switzerland.
“Criminal groups are offering services to migrants to facilitate their journey, making substantial profits. In 2016 alone, more than 7,000 new suspected migrant smugglers were reported to Europol,” said Europol director
“It is expected the prices for smuggling will continue to rise and exploitation is expected to further increase both in countries of transit and arrival,” he said. “Law enforcement in Europe can only fight this phenomenon by joining forces.”
Several thousand asylum seekers are still reaching Austria and Germany through the Balkans every month, despite the tighter border controls and security fences erected along Hungary’s frontiers with Croatia and Serbia.
Last week, Croatia briefly placed a metal gate across a bridge on its border with Serbia amid reports that the route could face a surge in migrant numbers, including people who had grown weary of seeking a way into Hungary.
Croatian prime minister Tihomir Oreskovic said the gate showed that the authorities were "monitoring the situation and we are ready" to react if necessary.