Ten suspected migrant smugglers were arrested on Wednesday in Italy and Germany, including the alleged ringleader behind a treacherous journey that killed an estimated 244 people off the coast of Libya in June.
The alleged human traffickers, who were picked up in an operation called Tokhla, were all Eritrean. They were charged with conspiracy and aiding illegal immigration. An 11th Eritrean was arrested for harbouring the migrants.
The operation marked a significant victory for Italian police, who said the smuggling ring arranged more than 20 trips between north Africa and Europe between May and September. The suspects allegedly used their network across Italy, including the Lazio and Lombardy regions, to smuggle the migrants to other European countries.
“This is a very important operation carried out by the Italian police with the cooperation of the German police and other authorities, and we think we have caught some important people within the organisation,” said Giovanni Salvi, the chief prosecutor in the case.
Police in Catania, who lead the investigation, also found nine Somalis, including eight children, during the operation. The victims had been locked in an attic by the suspected smugglers while they awaited payment by from the migrants’ families.
Salvi told the Guardian that the children were in good health.
In October the Guardian highlighted the risks facing migrant children once they land in Europe, including sexual exploitation and forced labour. Of more than 12,000 unaccompanied minors who arrived in Italy from Africa this year, the article said about one-third had gone missing from foster homes and government shelters.
Traffickers are also increasingly using children to drive boats of migrants to Italy. This year, 18 minors have been arrested and sent to jail in Sicily on trafficking charges.
Investigators in Catania on Wednesday said the international smuggling organisation operated between Italy, Libya, Eritrea and other north African countries. Among those arrested was Measho Tesfamariam, who lives in Germany and was believed to be one of the organisers of the June voyage. Relatives of the victims in that sinking had sought to contact him for news of their loved ones, the police said.
The criminal group is alleged to have cells in several European countries and organised migrants’ journeys from their villages to the final destination in exchange for money.
Police said the investigation into the smuggling ring had begun in May, after another vessel carrying 206 people was rescued by the Italian navy as part of the now-curtailed Mare Nostrum programme to patrol the Mediterranean Sea and rescue migrants. Another 17 migrants had died on that voyage.
The Mare Nostrum programme, which was launched following the deaths of 360 migrants in a shipwreck in October 2013, was wound down in November due to political pressure and replaced by Operation Triton, a programme headed by the EU border patrol agency. Triton patrols will search for and rescue migrants up to 50km from Italian territory, leaving at least 150km of water between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa unpatrolled.