Eleven people were arrested in Poland and the UK for smuggling migrants from Belarus into the EU, Europol announced on Friday.
The cross-border investigation uncovered a network of Syrian and Turkish nationals that recruited migrants from Iraq and helped them to cross into the EU on the eastern border. Investigators found that 662 migrants were smuggled by the criminal network.
The migrants paid between €10,000 and €13,000 for a "full smuggling service" from their countries through Belarus to Germany with the network generating around €7 million for the criminal group.
"The criminal network used Turkey as a transit country and logistical hub," Europol said in a statement.
"Once in Turkey, the migrants legally travelled to Moscow with tourist visas, from where they were then transferred to the Belarusian capital Minsk, or Grodno, a city near the borders with Lithuania and Poland.
"From there, the migrants were then smuggled to Germany via Poland and Lithuania."
They charged between €500 and €1,000 to get from Poland to Germany on the last leg of the trip. Often, the migrants were transported in "life-threatening conditions" such as overcrowded vehicles.
Authorities searched 28 locations in Germany, Lithuania and Poland and arrested "one high-value target" as part of the investigation, Europol added. Law enforcement authorities from Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, Poland and the UK were involved.
Lithuania first reported an increase in illegal migration along its border with Belarus in June 2021 with Poland and Latvia reporting the same.
Later in the year, it turned into a crisis with thousands of migrants attempting to cross Belarus' border with the bloc. EU leaders accused Belarus of using migrants as a weapon in a "hybrid attack" to retaliate against sanctions, with Poland stating that it would not "yield to blackmail" over the crisis.
According to Frontex, there were a record 8,184 "illegal border crossings" at Schengen's Eastern borders in 2021, representing "a more than tenfold increase in comparison to 2020."
The crisis prompted the Iraqi government to repatriate citizens stranded at the Polish border.