At least 89 victims of human trafficking were rescued and dozens of suspected traffickers arrested in a crackdown on organised crime groups in the Balkans, Interpol said on Wednesday.
Operation Theseus saw 3,000 officers from eight nations including Albania, Moldova and Turkey dispatched to crime hotspots including border checkpoints, train and bus stations and entertainment districts, the global police agency said.
About 72 suspected traffickers and 167 migrant smugglers were arrested during the week-long operation last month. The trafficking victims – including seven children – were forced to sell sex, work and beg, Interpol said.
“Organized crime groups prey on the vulnerable and help them cross borders illegally for hefty sums,” said Jurgen Stock, secretary general of INTERPOL, which led the crackdown.
“For some, the relationship ends on arrival, but for others, it is only just the beginning of a bleak future of exploitation,” he said in a statement outlining the operation.
Unlike trafficking, which involves deception or control over another person for the purpose of exploitation, smuggling means entering another country illegally and is considered consensual.
Southeast Europe has long been a transit point for people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East taking perilous journeys to the West. The region was traversed by more 1 million migrants who ended up in Europe in 2015, many escaping conflict in Syria.
Europol received reports of 6,600 cases of migrants smuggled in vehicles via the Balkans in 2018 – almost 80% in risky circumstances, it said last year. Data for 2019 was unavailable.
About 25 million people globally are estimated to be victims of forced labour, according to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization and rights group Walk Free Foundation.