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2021.08.13 17:30

Amid migration crisis, Lithuanians join lucrative human smuggling schemes – LRT Investigation

Rūta Juknevičiūtė, Jurgita Čeponytė, Mindaugas Aušra, Jurga Tvaskienė, Indrė Makaraitytė, LRT Investigation Team, Kareem Botane2021.08.13 17:30

Amid a migration crisis orchestrated by the Minsk regime, some Lithuanians have found an opportunity to profit by offering illicit passages to western Europe. LRT Investigation Team reports.

An Iraqi journalist working with LRT pretended to be a migrant looking for ways to leave Lithuania and go to Germany. He looked for smugglers on social media.

An Iraqi man introduced his “friend” Andrius in Lithuania and told the journalist to contact him on encrypted messaging apps WhatsApp or Telegram.

“I only speak English. The cost is 3,000 euros per person,” Andrius responded. “You have to come to Lithuania first. From Lithuania I can drive you to Germany. [...] I am Lithuanian.”.

He offered to pick up five people for a 15-hour trip by van to Germany. “You’ll have to pay in Germany, but you must have the money with you,” Andrius added.

A few days later, the journalist called Andrius again, pretending to be a Syrian migrant who was accommodated at the Refugee Reception Centre in Rukla and wanted to reach Germany.

Andrius said he could pick the person up from Kaunas the same day. The cost was 3,000 euros.

The smuggler asked whether the migrant had the money, and then told him to send a video showing his face.

“I need to be sure that you’re not from the police,” Andrius said.

Having arranged the trip, the LRT Investigation Team arrived at the Savas shopping mall in Kaunas, where they were supposed to meet the smuggler.

“My friend is calling you from an Arabic [phone] number. Answer him,” Andrius made the last demand before meeting the migrant. “He wants to talk to you so that I can be sure that you are a real person. Call him.”

The “friend from Iraq” called several times. Andrius left Lithuania the next day, sources confirmed.

Soon the journalist began receiving calls and messages from other Iraqis in Arabic and Russian. One of the smugglers said he was informed about the planned trip to Germany and wanted to join.

Transporting cargo and people

Andrius Velička is a 29-year-old businessman from Kaunas and head of Transport Solutions Group that offers international cargo transportation services.

The company employs only one worker, with the office located in a residential house in Kaunas.

Transport Solutions Group carries out car shipping from Lithuania to Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Moreover, the company offers bus and trailer rental services, and transports parcels to Denmark.

The same phone number that Velička used to plan the migrant smuggling deals is listed under the company’s registry data.

However, he denied any involvement in smuggling schemes and claimed that it could have been some “fake accounts doing something”.

“I am in one Facebook group [with Iraqis], and there are no other connections, practically,” Velička told LRT.

Falsified documents

LRT Investigation Team identified at least four smugglers helping migrants escape Lithuania.

Getting to Germany from Lithuania would cost 4,000 euros, according to a user on Telegram, @Iowa0. The account was later deleted.

The alleged smuggler said to contact them as soon as the migrants entered Lithuania – “our office is in Istanbul and we’ll contact you directly.”

Another smuggler offered to send a car for a transfer to Poland from Lithuania and then to Germany – all for 5,200 euros.

“I have other routes within Lithuania, depending on what your destination is. There will be a car that will pick you up, we only transport three people in a car. There’s a place that’s far from the military and police, and the drivers are Lithuanian and Polish,” he said.

“There are no empty cars for the next 10 days,” said Zain Al-Aabadin. The smuggler claimed he was from a travel agency.

“I need to make a false European ID for you, as if you live in Europe and travel for tourism. There are no stamps or visas between Lithuania and other EU countries, you could move freely with the ID,” he said.

Zain Al-Aabadin offered a trip from Lithuania to Germany for 8,000 euros. However, he added, if someone living in an EU country comes to pick the migrant up from Lithuania, they would only have to cover the 500 euro cost for the fake ID.

“You need to dress normally to not attract attention. I don’t know what your situation is like, but it would help if you spoke English.”

The smuggler then said he will delete his Facebook account, and suggested continuing the conversation on WhatsApp.

Leaving money in Turkey

A person who introduced herself as Sire Salma, a migrant at the Rukla centre, contacted a smuggler named Faisal. He involved another man in the conversation, supposedly a coordinator of the transportation scheme.

Faisal and his colleague explained they would send a car for Sire Salma if she can find two or three other women to go with her.

Faisal asked Salma to send a photo as proof and reveal her location. The trip would cost between 3,500 to 4,000 euros.

The leaders also asked her if she had any experience working with insurance agencies in Turkey, which holds the money while the migrant is on the road. If the trip is unsuccessful, the migrants get their money back.

Salma said she had no one in Turkey, but Faisal reassured her she would be able to pay in cash.

Some 350 migrants left Lithuania

Some 350 migrants have fled from accommodation centres in Lithuania – 145 from the Pabradė Foreigners’ Registration Centre (URC), 150 people from the Rukla Refugee Reception Centre, and 45 from the Family Support Centre in Jieznas.

The Migration Department grants certain migrants free movement for up to 72 hours.

“The period of time, 24 or 72 hours, is enough, [...] if there are actions planned to get to Germany,” said Aleksandras Kislovas, head of URC.

The majority of the migrants are found while still in Lithuania or before they reach the Polish border, according to Justina Jakštienė, vice minister for Social Security and Labour.

Some 90 asylum seekers were accommodated at Jieznas Family Support Centre since March, and half of them have left the facility, said Meilutė Blekaitienė, deputy director for social work at the centre.

“They sign a document on where they are going and when they will come back. They say anything. Sometimes they write that they are just going to the park,” said Blekaitienė. “If they aren’t back after 72 hours, we notify the authorities [...] There are cases when we know that they were caught. They are then taken to Pabradė, a much stricter zone.”

Suspicious looking cars arrive to take migrants away, according to head of local administration in Jieznas, Algis Bartusevičius. The cars also often have Lithuanian registration plates.

“There were cars with Lithuanian number plates, but I cannot say who was involved – the Germans, Poles – we don’t have details,” he added.

Ten pre-trial investigations into migrant smuggling were launched this year, according to the State Border Guard Service (VSAT). Among those detained were Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Germans, as well as an Iraqi and a Chechen.

Smuggler chase in Kaunas

The Refugee Reception Centre in Rukla is dealing with the biggest number of escapees. Starting August 2 and the facility is now guarded by the Public Security Service (VST).

Some visitors would get close to the centre and give their phone numbers to the migrants. They could have been smugglers, sources said.

“Even the residents have noticed that more cars with German registration plates stop by, more are circling around, going back and forth,” said Akvilė Karoblienė, head of local administration in Rukla. “ [...] and the standing around, with Polish registration plates, we’ve also seen vans with Italian registration plates.”

“We could partially ignore German or, say, Belgian registration plates, since we have NATO troops deployed here from Germany, Belgium, and other countries,” she added. “However, what caught our attention was the standing around, the aimless driving back and forth.”

Once away from the facility in Rukla, migrants usually take buses to Jonava, LRT Investigation Team discovered. Some of them return, while others then travel to Kaunas.

Throughout July, migrants usually travelled from Rukla to Jonava, and from Jonava to Kaunas. The information was confirmed by Otaras Urbanas, head of Jonava bus station.

On July 24, the Investigation Team observed a group of migrants, most likely from Africa, leave the facility in Rukla and take the bus to Jonava and then to Kaunas. Two other people joined them at the Kaunas bus station, and the group left for Ramybės park nearby.

There, they met up with two black men after an hour, and began making calls. A car with temporary number plates arrived at a nearby street, driven by a black man. After some time of negotiating with the driver, some of the migrants got in the car and left, while the others stayed in the park.

The car maneuvered through Kaunas’ streets, evading the journalists trailing behind.

Migrant smuggling schemes

There were 3,931 cases of migrant smuggling in Europe in 2020, according to Europol’s activity report from the European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC).

While Lithuania was not discussed in the report, it has been a common transit country for migrant smugglers for a while.

By the time a migrant leaves their country of origin, their trip from Lithuania to western Europe is often already planned, a former officer who chose to remain anonymous told LRT Investigation Team. He has participated in operations targeting human trafficking in the past.

A decade ago migrants paid some 3,000 euros to get from the Middle East to western Europe. The prices have doubled since, he added.

Now, the smugglers arrange the trip to Belarus, then show the way to Lithuanian border and claim they will plan the rest of the journey out as well.

Many of these smugglers have previously engaged in contraband work.

“There is little difference for them on what kind of cargo they are transporting. They just earn more from live cargo,” the officer said.

Some smugglers take the money and then abandon the migrants once they are in Lithuania, the officer added.

More elaborate smuggling schemes involve several teams of smugglers responsible for helping migrants cross the border and accommodating them in Lithuania until they can continue the trip. Sometimes they pay local residents to provide migrants with temporary shelter and food.

Smugglers wait for a larger group of migrants to form before crossing the Polish border. They also tend to hire locals who look for more migrants that want to leave. These intermediaries often know little about the scheme and its organisers.

Smuggling schemes most often involve transporting migrants in minibuses rather than buses or lorries to avoid going through inspection at border checkpoints, the former officer explained.

Lorries used to smuggle migrants have European registration plates, and are often accompanied by a car that surveys the area for police, Europol’s report states.

Smugglers use social media and encrypted messaging apps to plan and advertise their schemes. The so-called burner smartphone applications are employed as well, since they allow creating a temporary phone number that can be deleted anytime.

During Operation Shere Khan, police forces of EU countries, supported by Europol, dismantled a large criminal network involved in the transportation of around 10,000 Iraqi-Kurdish, Syrian, Afghan and Iranian people to France, and then to the UK.

Irregular migrants paid 7,000 euros to be transported in life-threatening conditions, concealed in overcrowded lorries, Europol’s report states. Smugglers are suspected to have gained around 70 million euros in profit from the scheme. Law enforcement arrested 23 suspects of the criminal network.

The payments were collected via an undercover Hawala banking system, Europol reports.

Hawala is an informal money transfer system used in India, Middle East and South Asia. It is a money transfer without money movement, according to Europol, therefore commonly employed for money laundering schemes.

Hawala takes place outside the traditional banking system. It has a global network of brokers, called hawaladars, to arrange the exchange of money from one place to another.

A client gives a sum of money to a hawala broker to be paid to some foreign recipient. The broker, in turn, transfers the money to another broker in the destination country, who then forwards the money to the recipient.

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