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IMMIGRATION

Arrests made in Spain after trafficking bust

A human trafficking ring that smuggled Chinese migrants into Europe and the United States has been dismantled and 75 people have been arrested in Spain and France, Spanish police said on Saturday.

Arrests made in Spain after trafficking bust

Spanish and French police said Saturday they have dismantled a human trafficking ring that smuggled Chinese migrants into Europe and the United States, charging up to 50,000 euros per person.

A total of 75 suspects including two "main operatives" based in Barcelona were arrested, including 51 in Spain and 24 in France after a two-year joint investigation, a police statement said.

The traffickers charged 40,000 to 50,000 euros ($53,000 to $66,000) per person to provide "false identities and transport Chinese citizens to the United States and countries such as Spain, France, Greece, Italy, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Turkey," the statement said.

In some cases the ring was involved in the sexual exploitation of migrants, it added.

Spanish police seized 81 fake passports from Asian countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

The investigation into the ring, described as "complex", began in July 2011.

"The composition of this perfectly structured, hierarchical organisation, with its kingpin in China and independent cells operating in different countries, completely shut off from each other, complicated the investigation," the police statement said.

The traffickers accompanied their clients all the way from China to Spain, "the last stop (serving as a) trampoline to the final destination, usually the United Kingdom or the United States," it said.

The operatives, mainly from China and Malaysia, had the "complete confidence" of the ringleaders and were "thorough connaisseurs of the European airports and cities along the route of the transfers," the statement said.

Once their mission was accomplished they would return home immediately, "in order to make it more difficult to track them," police said.

Upon the migrants' arrival in Barcelona, operatives of the trafficking ring would meet them and take them to safe houses before they embarked on the next leg of their journey.

The route taken from China, as well as the travel documents used, "changed constantly according to the successes and failures of previous trips… or in order to prevent discovery of the traffickers," the statement said.

The migrants were given precise instructions on how to avoid detection at customs controls, for example by mixing in with a group of tourists.

The two top officials were arrested in Barcelona, while another 49 suspects were picked up in Spanish airports including those of Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga and Mallorca, plus another 24 in France.

The 81 fake passports were found in two lodgings owned by the ring in Barcelona.

There police also found equipment for forging documents including portable computers, scanners, around 20 fake customs stamps and an electronic magnifier.

Police also provided pictures of a firearm, cellphones and wads of cash, both euros and yuan, that were seized in the operation.

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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