An Interpol-led crackdown on human trafficking and migrant smuggling saw authorities in Africa and Europe rescue 500 human trafficking victims including children and identifying 760 irregular migrants.
Operation Weka (“Stop” in Swahili) was carried out from 28 March to 2 April. Authorities from 24 countries representing source, transit and destination locations processed investigations and exchanged intelligence to dismantle criminal networks behind key routes.
Co-ordinated by Interpol’s Vulnerable Communities unit, Weka saw 195 arrests – 88 for human trafficking and 63 on smuggling charges. The remaining arrests were on charges including document fraud, theft, drugs-related crimes and environmental offences.
The joint operation was supported by a number of partners, with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) taking a leading role in victim assistance. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) provided judicial support and intelligence was generated by AIRCOP, Europol and the ROCK – AU-Horn of Africa Initiative on Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling.
The Lyon, France headquartered police organisation listed seven highlights including a South African contribution.
South African police raided a blanket factory on the Gauteng East Rand, arresting five Chinese nationals and rescuing 17 Malawian victims, who reported working 15-hour days without food or breaks. They were reportedly confined to a warehouse, where they slept on the floor and suffered physical abuse
Morocco hosted the operational co-ordination unit and made 49 arrests, linked to migrant smuggling. Acting on intelligence from Morocco, Spanish authorities arrested two smugglers known to facilitate transport of irregular migrants from Africa using rigid inflatable boats and trucks. Sudanese police rescued 100 victims and arrested, including traffickers attempting to take victims to the Middle East and individuals exploiting children in a plastics factory.
Highlighting inter-continental trafficking and smuggling routes as bi-directional, police in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) freed 29 Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian trafficking victims exploited by a construction company. Their passports were seized by their so-called employer, who did not pay them.
Kenyan and Ugandan police joined efforts following the discovery of a 10-year old girl trafficked to Kenya for forced labour in a family home. Investigations in both countries led to the arrest of three traffickers in Uganda, allegedly masterminds of a network trafficking vulnerable young girls to Kenya.
Airport authorities in Athens were alerted to a suspicious-looking volleyball team. Dressed in matching tracksuits and carrying identical backpacks, nine Syrian nationals attempted using counterfeit Romanian identity documents to exit Greece. Airport checks in Lisbon saw a hit in Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Document database, when a passenger tried to use an ID card reported stolen by French authorities in August 2020.
Operation Weka again demonstrated the close links between migrant smuggling and human trafficking, particularly during a global health crisis when the most vulnerable are desperate to escape hardship and the criminal networks seek profit according to Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock.
“These victims could not simply walk away from the horrific situations they found themselves in and the suffering they endured.
“Interpol’s work does not stop here. We will continue to help countries untangle sensitive and complex cases which should generate further arrests in the months to come.”
One case involved a 15-year old Congolese girl who fled a forced marriage with the “help: of smugglers. She suffered sexual abuse on the journey before being identified and rescued by authorities in Tunisia, who are investigating whether she was also being sexually exploited.
Participating countries were Algeria, Angola, Benin, Brazil, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, Malawi, Morocco, Portugal, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Spain, Sudan, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.