Police in Belgium and France have arrested 26 people as part of an investigation into human trafficking sparked by the macabre discovery last year of 39 dead Vietnamese migrants in a refrigerated lorry in the UK.
The arrests were carried out on Tuesday during early morning raids conducted simultaneously in Belgium and the Ile-de-France region as part of two legal investigations, France's Prosecutor's Office said in a statement.
Thirteen people were arrested in each of the two countries with the Belgian Federal Prosecutor revealing that 11 of those detained by the country's authorities are Vietnamese and the remaining two are Moroccan.
"The suspects were allegedly part of an Organised Crime Group (OCG) that smuggled refugees from Asia, particularly from Vietnam, and that likely has transported up to several dozen people every day for several months," Eurojust, an EU agency dealing with judicial co-operation between member states, added.
Five victims/migrants were also found during the raids.
The operations were supported by a joint investigation team created in October 2019 between Belgium, Ireland, France, the UK, Eurojust and Europol after the discovery of 39 deceased Vietnamese nationals inside a refrigerated lorry in Essex, in south-east England.
The victims — 31 men and eight women — were aged between 15 and 44 years old and are believed to have paid human traffickers to smuggle them into the UK.
A report for the coroner said they died of a combination of asphyxiation and overheating.
The Northern Irish truck driver, Maurice Robinson, 25, pleaded guilty to manslaughter last month at a central London court. Co-defendant Gheorghe Nica, 43, has however denied the manslaughter charges.
Several other people have also been arrested in connection to the deaths, including at least seven in Vietnam.
The suspected smugglers arrested on Tuesday face up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to €150,000 per victim.