PARIS – In a massive international sweep, police across Europe on Monday detained 75 people suspected of funneling illegal immigrants — mainly Iraqi Kurds — into northern Europe, French officials said.
The sweep — dubbed "Operation Baghdad" — was the result of a broad investigation into a complex people-smuggling ring believed to have brought hundreds of people from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in recent years to Britain, Ireland and countries in Scandinavia.
Nearly one-third of the arrests took place Monday in France. Paris prosecutors said in a statement that police had uncovered a "well-structured transnational cell" and arrested 24 people in the capital and other French towns and cities.
Some 1,300 police officers from 10 European countries — Germany, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Greece, Ireland, Norway, Netherlands and Sweden — were mobilized for the investigation, the French Interior and Immigration Ministries said in a joint statement. Paris prosecutors said all those countries except Denmark had detained people believed to be linked to the ring.
The immigrants were mostly Iraqi Kurds, but also included people from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Iran and Turkey, the officials said. The Iraqi immigrants were generally taken through Turkey on the way to Scandinavia.
The would-be immigrants paid between $9,300 and $21,000 to be brought to Europe, according to French and German authorities. France was mainly a transit point, the French officials said.
The suspects accused of operating the network were aged between 21 and 48, and included people from Iraq, Turkey, Morocco and other countries. Most were men. The alleged leader of the German operation was a 28-year-old Iraqi citizen living in Wuppertal.
William Spindler, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva, urged authorities to consider the interests of refugees who at times count on human smugglers to help them flee misery at home.
"We welcome actions to crack down on human smugglers, some of whom are utterly ruthless characters who abuse, exploit, rob and sometimes even kill their clients. But it is important to ensure that their victims are properly protected," he said.
"An unintended effect of cracking down on human smugglers — as important as that is — may be to close the only avenue left for refugees to escape persecution or conflict," he said.
He noted some cases in which some Iraqis had been granted refugee status in European countries but were unable to get there without turning to people smugglers.
"For many refugees it is well nigh impossible to get passports, visas or plane tickets," Spindler said. "They have to travel in an irregular way in order to save their lives and reach a secure place."
Monday's French arrests took place in Paris, Cherbourg on the Atlantic coast and other regions. The suspects can be held up to four days for questioning.
In Belgium, police detained 10 people during raids Monday in the capital, Brussels, and in nearby city of Leuven. Some of those detained are believed to be ring leaders, police officials said.
Seven people were arrested Monday in Germany in connection with an international human smuggling ring, according to a spokesman for state prosecutors in Koblenz. Spokesman Horst Hund said the seven people were among 15 individuals that authorities have been investigating since the beginning of the year.
In Sweden, 12 people have been detained in connection with Operation Baghdad. Five people were questioned Monday in Karlstad and Boras but were later released, Prosecutor Marie Lind-Thomsen said.
One man in his 50s was arrested Monday in Karlstad, central Sweden, on suspicion of aggravated people smuggling. Six people were detained last week in the southern Swedish province of Skane as part of the operation, police spokeswoman Ulla Ahlback said.
In the Netherlands on Monday, border police in the northern city of Leeuwarden arrested three men "suspected of involvement in a European network of human smugglers," the Dutch National Prosecutor's Office said.
Documents, cell phones, a computer and travel documents were seized in raids on two houses, the prosecutor said. Those arrested are suspected of smuggling Iraqi Kurds to Scandinavia.