Italy detains 38 in crackdown on migrant trafficking ring
Thirty-eight people have been detained by Italian authorities in a crackdown on a migrant trafficking ring which used a Rome cosmetics shop as a base for illegal financial transactions, officials have said.
Police seized 526,000 euros (£440,700) and 25,000 US dollars (£18,800) in cash from the store.
Officers also discovered what they described as a "master book, filled with names and phone numbers of foreigners" at the shop in the Italian capital.
"It was the place where the money of migrants who wanted to reach Italy was collected," Palermo prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi said, adding that the ring had two hubs - one in the Sicilian city and the other in Rome.
Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and economic migrants have reached Italy in the last few years, after being rescued at sea when smugglers' boats foundered in the Mediterranean.
The vessels set sail from Libya, where a main base of the traffickers is located, and migrants wait in sordid conditions, often for months, for the opportunity to be crammed into the boats after paying thousands of dollars.
Palermo-based authorities said the suspects were 25 Eritreans, 12 Ethiopians and one Italian.
Investigators alleged that the ring also helped arrange "convenience marriages".
And the ring used the same channel to smuggle in drugs, specifically khat from Ethiopia, police said.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said the authorities had dealt "a harsh blow" to the criminal network.
Palermo police said in a statement that an Eritrean man who was arrested in 2014 collaborated with authorities, providing for the first time "a complete reconstruction of criminal activities" of migrant trafficking involving operations both in North Africa and Italy.
Mr Lo Voi told a news conference in Palermo that the probe helped investigators to "reach a higher level in the fight against clandestine immigration."
The investigation also "pinpointed the financial channel of the criminal network that managed the trafficking of migrants from Africa to Sicily", he said.
Mr Lo Voi said another scheme involved migrants, legally in Italy, falsely stating that they had relatives who wanted to reach them in Italy. Under Italian law, immediate family members or spouses can be given permission to enter Italy.
Palermo police investigations in the past few years have led to the prosecution and arrest of suspects involved in whisking away migrants shortly after rescue boats bring them to Sicily, so they can reach family members in Germany or other northern European countries.
Meanwhile, e ight suspected people-smugglers were arrested in Serbia as part of efforts to curb the illegal transfer of migrants towards Western Europe.
Police said on Monday that the group smuggled several dozen migrants from Serbia over the border to Hungary and then to Austria, earning between 1,100 euros (£920) and 1,200 euros (£1,005) per migrant.
The smuggling of migrants through the Balkans has been on the increase since nations shut their borders in March, closing down the previous refugee route towards Western Europe.
More than one million people entered Europe last year and nations have been closing their borders to curb the influx.