News2023.05.25 08:00

Lithuanians are gaining foothold in European migrant smuggling networks – LRT Investigation

A number of Lithuanians have been jailed across Europe for smuggling migrants. Most were low-level cogs enticed by generous pay in exchange for hiding migrants in their trucks, but some have had ambition to establish themselves in European human smuggling networks.

In mid-May, a tragic car accident in Kalvarija, near Lithuania’s border with Poland, killed the driver and a passenger, who was an irregular migrant. The car crashed into a pond while trying to escape the police.

A similar story was reported in Poland in early May. The driver lost control of the car and swerved off the road, rolling over. It turned out that the five-seater car was transporting 10 migrants who had crossed the Polish-Belarusian border. One person died at the scene.

Tragic incidents like this are few and far between in north-east of the EU, but they show the risks undertaken by migrant smugglers who are promised good pay. The offers are plentiful on social networks like Telegram. Though not explicit, they are easy to spot for LRT journalists: “Driver wanted, high pay”.

The person who posted the ad, Alban, communicates only in Russian, does not answer any questions, and at first asks the potential driver where they live and what kind of vehicle they drive. Later on, Alban sends more details about the offer: picking up people from Poland the following day and taking them to Frankfurt in Germany. The pay is 2,000 euros.

Further details suggest that the job concerns transporting migrants: the passengers speak only English and the pick-up spot is 10 kilometres from the Polish-Belarusian border, on the road where the fatal accident occurred in early May.

“The principle of operation is a bit like that of a ride hailing service. Offers to drivers are posted in closed groups on Facebook and Telegram,” says Albertas Karkauskas, deputy head of the State Border Guard Service’s (VSAT) Criminal Investigation Department. He adds that, if caught, these drivers face fines in the thousands of euros or up to 15 years in prison.

Last year, more than 230 migrant smugglers were apprehended in Lithuania, and 40 so far this year. Most of them are foreign nationals, including about a third who are Ukrainians.

While there are no statistics about how many Lithuanians have ended up in EU prisons as a result of migrant smuggling, many are active in the Balkans, smuggling migrants through Hungary and Austria. LRT’s Investigation Team identified several Lithuanians imprisoned in Hungary and spoke to their family members.

Police officials from European countries tell LRT that Lithuanian citizens do not occupy the highest positions in organised smuggling networks, but some do try to climb up the “career” ladder.

Fake documents and Lithuanian phrases

A man, who currently lives outside Lithuania, has admitted to LRT that he took up a few migrant smuggling jobs to complement his salary as a long-distance truck driver. He agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.

“You can’t have too much money. They offer you a job, it’s quick, you make 800 euro in two hours,” he says.

The man was working for an Austrian logistics company at the time, transporting goods from Germany to the United Kingdom back when it was still part of the EU. In total, he transported three migrants, citizens of Moldova and Ukraine.

“You’d come to Dunkirk or Calais where there are parking lots. You’d still make a stop to do your shopping and they would come and bring the person who has to go. The intermediaries were Russian-speaking. They look for cars from the former Soviet republics: Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania. They offer a lower pay at first for transportation, and if you don’t accept, they raise it, but I was never offered more than 800 euros,” the man says.

The migrants he took in pretended to be the second driver of the truck. The intermediaries also supplied IDs, driving licences, counterfeit driver cards. To make the story more plausible, they even taught the migrants some basic phrases in Lithuanian.

“They would sit next to me, ask if they’re saying the words correctly,” reveals the former migrant smuggler.

In all, the Lithuanian man made around 3,000 euros from his illegal activities. He would receive the pay from his passengers once they’d gotten on the ferry to the UK.

He stopped simply because his regular routes changed and he no longer delivered goods to the UK.

According to the BBC, illegal transportation across the Channel costs around 4,000 euros for a migrant.

Hungary’s prisons filled with smugglers

Last March alone, two young Lithuanians were detained in Hungary in two different locations. One 19-year-old was trying to smuggle 25 Indian and Bangladeshi migrants from Romania. He was promised 500 euros by the smuggling network, but now faces a prison sentence of two to eight years.

In the other case, a 28-year-old Lithuanian man also entered Hungary from Romania. When police officers started following his van, he veered off the road into a wooded area, broke through a chain-link fence and got stuck. He abandoned the vehicle and, together with his 32 passengers, tried to flee, but was intercepted.

More Lithuanian nationals are engaged in two migrant smuggling routes: Romania-Hungary-Austria or Italy and Serbia-Croatia-Slovenia-Austria or Italy.

The LRT Investigation Team contacted three Lithuanians awaiting trial for migrant smuggling in Hungary, but still has not received permission to interview them from the Hungarian prison.

However, their relatives have shed some light on the situation. Irena (not her real name) says that her husband, who has been in prison awaiting trial since last August, went to Hungary for work. She says her husband does not know how the migrants ended up in his van, although nor can she explain how he could not have been aware of it.

Another woman in Lithuania is worried about her fiancé, who has been imprisoned in Hungary for a year and is still awaiting trial.

“I sent money two months ago, he has not received it, he doesn’t speak English, so he can’t communicate. The conditions there are tragic,” says Jūratė (also not her real name).

She admits that her fiancé knew well what he was doing when he agreed to smuggle migrants. In fact, Jūratė says she herself did not know why her husband was going to Hungary with a friend.

“He’s sorry, he’s very sorry,” the woman says.

Meanwhile, a woman living in western Lithuania has not heard from her grandson for more than two weeks. The young man is in Hungary, he was awaiting a court’s decision in early May, but communication has broken down.

“I’m his only grandma, he has nothing else. I’m depressed, such a disaster. I’m very upset,” she tells LRT.

According to official figures, there are currently around 2,600 foreign nationals in Hungarian prisons convicted for smuggling migrants, representing around 13 percent of the country’s total prison population. At the end of April, the Hungarian authorities announced that they were giving some of the convicts 72 hours to leave the country. The programme is meant to ease the burden on public resources amid growing prisoner numbers.

LRT understands there may be between 50 and 100 Lithuanians in Hungarian prisons.

Foothold in criminal networks

One migrant is charged around 5,000 euros for a trip from Serbia to Austria. However, they rarely travel alone.

The LRT Investigation Team was told by Slovenian police about a case where patrols attempted to intercept two vehicles last September: a minibus carrying 25 migrants and a car that served as an escort and helped the bus escape the police.

After a chase through the Slovenian countryside, the minibus fled into the woods, but the police stopped the two drivers of the escort car. They are Lithuanian citizens and were brought to court for migrant smuggling and obstructing the police.

The story tells a much more complex story of how Lithuanians try to make a living in the business. In this case, they were supervisors of migrant smugglers. Brigadier General Gerald Tatzgern, head of Austria’s Migrant Smuggling and Special Investigations Department, tells LRT that Lithuanian citizens who are detained in Austria may be both hired drivers and full-fledged members of criminal networks.

“Last year, we identified a number of such cases, and there are Lithuanians in both groups. For example, as organisers, Lithuanians plan the smuggling route through the Balkans or are responsible for the accommodation of migrants at different points along the route, including in Austria,” comments Tatzgern.

Criminal networks usually consist of between three and 10 people, according to him, although there are some with more than 100 people. In countries around Hungary, these networks are particularly professional and have close contacts with migrant recruiters in their home countries or in transit countries such as Turkey.

“The networks organise special accommodation, use social networks to maintain their ‘business’, and are linked to hawala [unofficial money transfer system] bankers who help the smugglers to handle payments. These are high-level criminal networks, and those at the top live in Asian or African countries,” the Austrian official tells LRT.

The middle tier in these networks is usually made up of driver recruiters, who also take care of the payment and manage thousands of drivers. Lithuanian nationals apprehended in Austria mostly occupy the lower levels in criminal networks, but there are indications that some are trying to become more deeply involved in their operations.

“The higher you go, the more money you make, which is why you want to be part of the network. We have evidence that some Lithuanians tried to become more important than they were, which led to internal conflicts, and they behave more aggressively in order to earn a good reputation,” says Tatzgern of the Austrian police.

While the Austrian authorities could not say how much money people at the very top of these networks make, the middle-ranked operatives get around 100,000 euros for transporting one truckload of migrants.

If they are part of an organised smuggling network, criminals in Austria could face between 10 and 15 years behind bars.

Migrant smuggling and human trafficking

Between January and April, 40 drivers smuggling migrants were arrested in Lithuania, most of them Latvians, but also Ukrainians. Last year, of the more than 200 smugglers arrested, almost 80 were Ukrainian nationals and around 30 were Lithuanians.

“These are people who are probably tempted by the rewards, which are quite high, and those who do not have a job are just looking for opportunities to make money,” Karkauskas, the deputy head of the Criminal Investigation Department of the VSAT, tells LRT.

Lithuania is becoming involved in organised migrant smuggling networks. Last December, officials from Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland apprehended one such organisation. Sixty-one members of the network were arrested, including two Lithuanians.

“We have several investigations opened where Lithuanian citizens were the organisers, maybe not at the highest level, but pre-trial investigations are underway and it would be premature to comment,” said the VSAT official.

Europol notes that criminals operating in similar networks are often also involved in drug, arms, and human trafficking. According to estimates, around one fifth of the criminals involved in migrant smuggling were also involved in human trafficking.

Colonel Jorn van Rijk, a senior investigator with the Dutch police, tells LRT that during the pandemic, Romanian criminals involved in human trafficking changed their profile, moving to Spain and Italy, where they started smuggling migrants.

“If we look at how the network itself works, in terms of structure, there are certainly many similarities between migrant smuggling and human trafficking. There are similar payment systems, the same routes, the same connections. We observe that in both networks, activities are developed through Facebook groups,” the investigator says.

In some cases, migrants seeking passage to their desired destination fall victim to human trafficking.

“In smuggling networks, we see how these can quite easily become part of human trafficking. Sometimes the people they are transporting illegally are trafficked and exploited. And in terms of the pattern of activity, there are similar elements in these networks, but the methods of operation are different. For example, in human trafficking, there is a grooming process, whereas in smuggling, the migrants themselves are looking for someone to move them,” says van Rijk.

According to Europol, irregular migrants in the EU risk becoming victims of modern slavery and sexual exploitation. Many are forced to serve as drug mules. Oftentimes, men, women, and children are unable to pay for their journey to Europe, which makes them easy prey for traffickers.

The story was produced in cooperation with the National Association Against Trafficking in Human Beings in the framework of the project Strengthening an Interactive Media Narrative of Anti-Trafficking in Human Beings: Mythbusters, supported by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Lithuania.

Human trafficking – involvement in prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced criminality, unpaid work – is a crime that violates human dignity. A 24-hour toll-free helpline for victims of human trafficking is available at +370 616 91119. Emotional, legal and psychological support is available in Lithuanian, Russian, and English.

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