By Tom Esslemont
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Law enforcement agencies are battling a surge in the number of people smugglers to record levels as criminal networks cash in on Europe's escalating migrant crisis, according to the head of the European Union's police agency Europol.
Director Rob Wainwright said the crime-fighting agency now had close to 50,000 suspected people smugglers in its database, with an extra 7,000 suspects added in the first half of 2016.
He said the number of people seeking to make money out of the thousands of people fleeing to Europe to escape conflict and poverty was picking up pace, with 6,400 new suspects identified by Europol in 2014 and 10,000 during 2015.
Wainwright said people smugglers were deploying more sophisticated techniques to evade tighter border controls in Europe and increasingly pairing human trade with drug trafficking.
"We are seeing a huge increase in the size of the criminal market ... with larger syndicates starting to bed down and take control," Wainwright told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
A Europol report earlier this year labeled people-smuggling as the "fastest growing criminal market in Europe", estimating gangs netted 6 billion euros ($6.6 bln) last year which could double or triple if the migration crisis persisted.
About one million migrants entered the European Union in 2015 of which nine out of 10 paid "facilitation services" to loose networks of criminals, Europol said, paying between 3,000- 6000 euros each.
Wainwright said some of the smugglers were opportunists, such as taxi drivers ferrying people across borders, but there was evidence their methods were becoming increasingly sophisticated as some EU member states closed borders.
He said Europol was training 200 European Union "counter-terrorist" police officers ready for a deployment to coastal areas of Greece next month and the agency was running 55 different operations to try to arrest key smugglers.
"They are very enterprising in the way they are bringing together teams of specialists under one syndicate ... some are recruiters, while others specialize in forging fake documents and others in money laundering," Wainwright said.
"The question is whether we can get to the stage where we can coordinate operations to arrest them. We are not at the stage yet."
Wainwright said an initially slow response by EU member states might account for a rise in the number of criminals turning their hand to a "major new opportunity" to make money with no falloff in the number of migrants fleeing to Europe.
"We had been warning that organized crime was underpinning this (smuggling) problem way back in 2013 and 2014, but it was only in 2015 that we got the right kind of political support and buy-in to then begin ... setting up a dedicated migrant smuggling center which we now have," he said.
An estimated 238,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe this year, up 68 percent on the same period last year, with most arriving in Greece or Italy, according to International Organisation for Migration (IOM) data.
In March, the EU sealed a deal with Turkey aiming to close the main route by which migrants and refugees poured into Greece last year and the numbers reaching Italy are now higher.
Wainwright said the numbers involved made it harder to identify the suspected people smugglers, who bore 100 different nationalities and operated from a list of countries.
"We are seeing lots of Syrians, Turks, Greeks and Italians," said the former intelligence analyst.
Wainwright, who is British, said the recent decision by Britain to leave the EU could have an impact on its involvement in Europol's activities at its Dutch headquarters and its new smuggling (detection) center, which is supported by the UK.
"We have British experts here, a lot of British intelligence and there is British cooperation in (our) operations, so what Brexit means for all of that is a lot of uncertainty," said Wainwright, whose mandate is due to end in April 2018.
(Reporting By Tom Esslemont, Editing by ------; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)