French and Dutch police have arrested 23 people suspected of smuggling thousands of Kurdish migrants into the UK, the EU's judicial agency announced on Wednesday.
Nineteen of the arrests were made in France, with the remaining five conducted near The Hague, in the Netherlands, the EU's justice cooperation agency said in a statement.
The 23 people are suspected of "facilitating the illegal transport of approximately 10,000 Kurdish migrants to the UK in refrigerated lorries and small rubber boats".
With the fare for a journey reaching as high as €7,000 per person, total profits for the smuggling ring are estimated at €70 million.
The investigation into the smuggling ring was started in August 2018 in France with the suspects picking up migrants in rest areas between Le Mans and Poitiers.
As the vehicles they used regularly sported Dutch licences plate, the investigation was soon extended to the Netherlands.
A link was also found to an illegal hawala banking system — an informal payment practice — in the Netherlands through which the smuggling fees were paid.
Around 2,758 migrants attempted to cross the English Channel by boat in 2019, according to figures from the French maritime authorities.
This represents a near five-fold increase from the previous year when 568 migrants had attempted the illegal crossing. The sharp rise was also accompanied by the first deaths with at least four migrants losing their lives in the Channel last year.
But reaching the UK onboard lorries can also be fatal. Thirty-nine Vietnamese nationals were found dead in October 2019 in a refrigerated lorry in Essex, UK.