Interpol seeks public help to catch human traffickers

Lyon (AFP) - Interpol called Thursday for public help to track down scores of human traffickers wanted around the world, accused of "profiting from the desperation" of migrants determined to reach Europe.

"People smuggling is a global issue, which is why international cooperation through operations such as Hydra are essential," Interpol's director of operational support Michael O'Connell said in a statement.

The operation, known as Infra Hydra, involves 44 countries as well as the EU police agency Europol.

The operation targeting 180 fugitives sought by 31 countries has so far made 26 arrests and located 31 other suspects.

The international police organisation based in the French city of Lyon identified 10 most-wanted suspects who are "especially difficult to locate", an Interpol spokeswoman told AFP.

"There's a lot of work to be done behind the scenes. We're hoping for good results," she said.

Among the key suspects are a Romanian woman whose operatives smuggled people into Austria charging them as much as 3,000 euros ($3,400), and the Azerbaijani former head of passenger screening at Baku airport accused of providing counterfeit airline tickets.

All are "internationally wanted fugitives," Interpol said.

The organisation said it has already nabbed a Moroccan national suspected of providing false Belgian identity papers to three Syrian refugees, charging them each about 12,000 euros.

Another is a Serb suspected of belonging to a trafficking ring that smuggled 25 migrants from Serbia to Hungary.

An Albanian crime group that smuggled refugees between France and Britain, with services costing upwards of 14,000 euros a person, has also been located and many of its members arrested.

- 'Tragic results' -

"The criminal networks involved have no regard for the safety or well-being of the people using their illegal services," O'Connell said. "They are just another commodity for them to trade, as we have seen with tragic results around the world."

Interpol highlighted the arrest in Spain of an Iranian national who was part of a smuggling ring between Iran and several European countries.

Its operatives are accused of routinely confiscating the passports of their victims, which include children, to hike their rates, which would total thousands of euros a person by journey's end, the agency said.

"Operation Hydra is aimed at dismantling these networks, to stop them from profiting from the desperation of people and bringing those responsible to justice, and we would encourage anyone with information to come forward," O'Connell said.

More than 800,000 migrants fleeing war, persecution and hardship in the Middle East and Asia, landed on the Greek islands from Turkey in 2015. Most continued on to northern Europe.

More than 10,000 have perished in the Mediterranean since 2014 while trying to reach Europe.

Interpol launched Hydra in October in the hope of fostering an exchange of information on the trafficking networks.

Modelled on previous Interpol operations focusing on fugitives suspected of murder, paedophilia, rape and drug trafficking, Hydra brought together 28 police officers from 24 countries for a weeklong operational phase in May.

Illegal immigration networks raked in profits of around $6.0 million in 2015, according to EU border agency Frontex.

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