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18 arrested for smuggling more than 490 migrants across the Balkan route

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Officers from the Romanian Police (Poliția Română) and Border Police (Poliția de Frontieră Română), supported by Europol, dismantled an organized crime group involved in migrant smuggling across the so-called Balkan route.

The action day on 29 July 2021 led to:

  • 22 house searches
  • 18 suspects arrested
  • Seizure of munitions, five vehicles car, mobile phones and €22 000 in cash

The criminal network, active since October 2020, consisted of Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian and Romanian citizens. The criminal group had cells in the countries across the Balkan route from where regional facilitators managed the recruitment, accommodation and transport of migrants from Jordan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Several criminal cells based in Romania facilitated the border crossing from Bulgaria and Serbia of groups of migrants and arranged their temporary accommodation in the area of Bucharest and in western Romania. The migrants were then smuggled to Hungary on their way to Germany as a final destination. In total, 26 illegal transports of migrants were intercepted and 490 migrants were detected in an attempt to illegally cross the Romanian border. Very well organized, the criminal group was involved in other criminal activities as well, such as drug trafficking, document fraud and property crime.

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Up to €10,000 per migrant

Migrants were paying between €4,000 and €10,000 depending on the trafficking segment. For example, the price for facilitating the crossing from Romania to Germany was between €4,000 and €5,000. The migrants, some of which were families with young children, were accommodated in extremely poor conditions, often with no access to toilets or running water. For the safe houses, the suspects rented accommodations or used the residences of group members, mainly situated in the areas of Călărași County, Ialomița County and Timișoara. In one of the safe houses, measuring about 60 m2, the suspects hid 100 people at the same time. The migrants were then transferred in risky conditions in overcrowded lorries between merchandise and in vans hidden in concealments without proper ventilation. 

Europol facilitated the exchange of information and provided analytical support. On the action day, Europol deployed one analyst to Romania to cross-check operational information against Europol’s databases in real time to provide leads to investigators in the field. 

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EU's anti-fraud office finds 20% less fraud in 2020 than 2019

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The financial impact of detected fraud against the EU budget continued to decline in 2020, according to the annual report on the protection of the European Union’s financial interests (PIF report) adopted by the European Commission today (20 September). The 1,056 fraudulent irregularities reported in 2020 had a combined financial impact of €371 million, around 20% less than in 2019 and continuing the steady decrease of the last five years. The number of non-fraudulent irregularities remained stable, but declined in value by 6%, according to the report.

Budget and Administration Commissioner Johannes Hahn said: “The EU’s unprecedented response to the pandemic makes more than €2 trillion available to help member states recover from the impact of the coronavirus. Working together at the EU and member state levels to keep this money safe from fraud has never been more important. Working hand-in-hand, all the different components of the EU’s anti-fraud architecture provide our defence against the fraudsters:  the investigative and analytical work of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the prosecutorial powers of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), the coordinating role of Eurojust, the operational capacity of Europol, and close cooperation with and between national authorities.”

Today's positive news comes as Brussels-based EU Observer reported that the European Commission has blocked the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) from using their budget to hire the specialized personnel they need in the areas of finance and IT. The anonymous claims appear to be confirmed by Monica Hohlmeier MEP (EPP, DE), who is chairwoman of the European Parliament's Committee on Budgetary Control.

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Highlights of progress made in 2020 and in the first half of 2021 include:

•     The start of operations of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office

•     A revised regulation for OLAF, ensuring effective cooperation with the EPPO and strengthened investigative powers

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•     Tougher rules on the conditionality of EU budget allocations in cases where  breaches of the principles of the rule of law affect the protection of the EU’s financial interests

•     Good progress on implementing the Commission’s Anti-Fraud Strategy, with two thirds of the planned actions implemented and the remaining third ongoing

The PIF report also offers a reflection on the new risks and challenges to the EU’s financial interests emerging from the COVID-19 crisis, and the tools to counter them. The Commission and Member States should not lower their guard against these risks, the report concludes, and continue to work hard on improving both fraud prevention and detection.

The 32nd Annual Report on the Protection of the EU's financial interests published today is available on the OLAF website.

The EPPO has already registered 1,700 crime reports and has opened 300 investigations, with the ongoing losses to the EU budget checking it at almost €4.5 billion.

Background:

The EU and Member States share responsibility for protecting the EU’s financial interests and fighting fraud. Member State authorities manage approximately three quarters of EU expenditure and collect the EU’s traditional own resources. The Commission oversees both of these areas, sets standards and verifies compliance.

Under the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Art 325(5)), the Commission is required to produce an Annual Report on the Protection of the EU’s Financial Interests (known as the PIF Report), detailing the measures taken at European and national level to counter fraud affecting the EU budget. The report is based on information reported by the Member States, including data on detected irregularities and fraud. The analysis of this information allows assessing which areas are most at risk, thereby to better target action at both EU and national level.

OLAF mission, mandate and competences

OLAF’s mission is to detect, investigate and stop fraud with EU funds.

OLAF fulfils its mission by:

·                carrying out independent investigations into fraud and corruption involving EU funds, so as to ensure that all EU taxpayers’ money reaches projects that can create jobs and growth in Europe;

·                contributing to strengthening citizens’ trust in the EU Institutions by investigating serious misconduct by EU staff and members of the EU Institutions;

·                 developing a sound EU anti-fraud policy.

In its independent investigative function, OLAF can investigate matters relating to fraud, corruption and other offences affecting the EU financial interests concerning:

·                all EU expenditure: the main spending categories are Structural Funds, agricultural policy and rural

development funds, direct expenditure and external aid;

·                 some areas of EU revenue, mainly customs duties;

·                 suspicions of serious misconduct by EU staff and members of the EU institutions.

Once OLAF has completed its investigation, it is for the competent EU and national authorities to examine and decide on the follow-up of OLAF’s recommendations. All persons concerned are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a competent national or EU court of law.

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Crime

Europe's cocaine market: More competitive and more violent

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More violent, diverse and competitive: these are the main characteristics of the cocaine trade in Europe. The new Cocaine Insights Report, launched today (8 September) by Europol and UNODC, outlines the new dynamics of the cocaine market, which represents a clear threat to European and global security. The report was launched as part of the work programme of CRIMJUST – Strengthening criminal justice co-operation along drug trafficking routes within the framework of the Global Illicit Flows Programme of the European Union.

The fragmentation of the criminal landscape in source countries has created new opportunities for European criminal networks to receive a direct supply of cocaine, cutting out the intermediaries. This new competition in the market has led to the increased supply of cocaine and consequently to more violence, a trend developed in Europol’s Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment 2021. Previously dominant monopolies in the wholesale supply of cocaine to European markets have been challenged by new trafficking networks. Western Balkan criminal networks, for instance, have established direct contacts with producers and secured a prominent place in the wholesale supply of cocaine. 

The report highlights the importance of intervention at the source as this market very much driven by the supply chain. Strengthening cooperation and further increasing the exchange of information between law enforcement authorities will enhance the effectiveness of investigations and the detection of shipments. The report highlights the importance of money laundering investigations to trace the illegal profits and of the confiscation of assists related to criminal activities. These financial investigations are at the core of the fight against cocaine trafficking, ensuring that the criminal activities do not pay.

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Julia Viedma, head of department of the Operational and Analysis Centre at Europol said: “Cocaine trafficking is one of the key security concerns we are facing in the EU right now. Nearly 40% of the criminal groups active in Europe are involved in drugs trafficking, and the cocaine trade generates multi-billion-euro in criminal profits. Understanding better the challenges we face will help us to counter more effectively the violent threat that cocaine trafficking networks represent to our communities.”  

Chloé Carpentier, Chief of the Drug Research Section at UNODC, highlighted how “the current dynamics of diversification and proliferation of cocaine supply channels, criminal actors and modalities are likely to continue, if left unchecked”.

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Unmasked: 23 detained over COVID-19 business email compromise fraud

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A sophisticated fraud scheme using compromised emails and advance-payment fraud has been uncovered by authorities in Romania, the Netherlands and Ireland as part of an action co-ordinated by Europol. 

On 10 August, 23 suspects were detained in a series of raids carried out simultaneously in the Netherlands, Romania and Ireland. In total, 34 places were searched. These criminals are believed to have defrauded companies in at least 20 countries of approximately €1 million. 

The fraud was run by an organised crime group which prior to the COVID-19 pandemic already illegally offered other fictitious products for sale online, such as wooden pellets. Last year the criminals changed their modus operandi and started offering protective materials after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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This criminal group – composed of nationals from different African countries residing in Europe, created fake email addresses and webpages similar to the ones belonging to legitimate wholesale companies. Impersonating these companies, these criminals would then trick the victims – mainly European and Asian companies, into placing orders with them, requesting the payments in advance in order for the goods to be sent. 

However, the delivery of the goods never took place, and the proceeds were laundered through Romanian bank accounts controlled by the criminals before being withdrawn at ATMs. 

Europol has been supporting this case since its onset in 2017 by: 

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  • Bringing together the national investigators on all sides who have seen been working closely together with Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) to prepare for the action day;
  • providing continuous intelligence development and analysis to support the field investigators, and;
  • deploying two of its cybercrime experts to the raids in the Netherlands to support the Dutch authorities with cross-checking in real-time information gathered during the operation and with securing relevant evidence. 

Eurojust co-ordinated the judicial co-operation in view of the searches and provided support with the execution of several judicial cooperation instruments.

This action was carried out in the framework of the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT).

The following law enforcement authorities were involved in this action:

  • Romania: National Police (Poliția Română)
  • The Netherlands: National Police (Politie)
  • Ireland: National Police (An Garda Síochána)
  • Europol: European Cybercrime Centre (EC3)
     
EMPACT

In 2010 the European Union set up a four-year policy cycle to ensure greater continuity in the fight against serious international and organised crime. In 2017 the Council of the EU decided to continue the EU Policy Cycle for the 2018 - 2021 period. It aims to tackle the most significant threats posed by organised and serious international crime to the EU. This is achieved by improving and strengthening cooperation between the relevant services of EU member states, institutions and agencies, as well as non-EU countries and organizations, including the private sector where relevant. Cybercrime is one of the priorities for the Policy Cycle.

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