AUGUST 28 2015 12:43h

Migrant smuggling has German cops working to meet Balkan Route rush

German police first responders to country




Refugees are crossing Germany's borders in their thousands, providing lucrative takings for criminal organizations. Those making it across the German border are often relieved once the police find them.

The radio report comes in at 1:30 am. Strangers have turned up at a fuel station in the eastern German town of Pirna, close to the Czech border, seeking shelter from the rain.

Federal police officers Patrick Thomas and Torsten Bastian realize immediately that they can only be refugees.

The people smugglers briefly left the Prague-Dresden motorway to drop their human cargo in Pirna before making off again. It's a common pattern, though sometimes the refugees are simply dumped on the motorway.

The two officers leave their observation post along the motorway - which their colleagues have nicknamed the Balkan Route - to find three Syrian families with a total of eight children.

One of the girls coughs perpetually. The others appear half-starved and exhausted, but happy. One of the fathers, who speaks a little English, relates that two of the families are from Aleppo and the third from Kobane.

A policewoman can barely take her eyes off the group.

"It certainly affects me as a mother, but I've gotten used to it," she says.

The fact that the group has broken German law is of secondary importance to the need to look after them. They are taken to a federal police centre in Berggiesshuebel, where they eat and shower before being offered camp beds.

Once all their details have been taken, they are taken to the city of Chemnitz.

Returning to their post on the motorway, Thomas and Bastian say they are unhappy they were unable to catch the smugglers.

"They simply throw the people out and leave them to their fate," Thomas says.

He tells of refugees who have spent all their savings on the journey, even getting into debt. The smugglers are for the most part the "little fish," but catching them could lead on to the criminal organizations behind the smuggling.

Bastian expresses anger at the way "money is being earned from human misery."

The German federal police are increasingly having to deal with large-scale smuggling operations in which 30 people and more are illegally brought across the border.

The conditions sometimes recall slave transports of centuries past. Recently 81 people were found crammed onto a loading platform. On occasion the smugglers drive for two days without stopping, with no breaks to use the lavatory or to eat. Speed is of the essence and stops increase the risk of discovery.

"These large-scale operations didn't happen two years ago," Thomas says. "In the 1990s we were still walking through the woods, and the refugees were crossing the border on foot over the green border."

Now the asylum seekers arrive in small vans. So those are the vehicles upon which Thomas and Bastian focus during their border stints.

They first check the number plates. Vans with darkened windows are particularly suspicious. Vehicles from Eastern European countries draw attention.

But there are also Swedes operating as smugglers, taking their illegal passengers all the way to Scandinavia. Other times, the refugees are well-dressed passengers in comfortable cars.

Before the Syrians arrived, the officers checked a long-distance coach from Prague, whose driver told them that there were frequently a couple of refugees on board, but that he had no right to check passports. "We're only interested in the ticket," he says.

But this time there are no "hits" on the bus and the officers wish the passengers a pleasant journey.

Later, 10 Mongolians travelling in a van are checked. They have residence permits for the Czech Republic and are on their way to Paris for a week's holiday.

While the routine checks are all part of the night's work, finding groups of refugees raises stress levels. "If you let it get to you, it will finish you off," says Thomas.

The officers wear bullet-proof vests and carry pistols, riot sticks, pepper spray and handcuffs, but these are rarely needed.

"They are happy to be here. There is basically no aggression," says Stefan Ehrlich, a police liaison officer in Breitenau.

Over the course of this year, the federal police in Pirna have recorded more than 3,000 illegals and detained 200 smugglers, almost as many as in the whole of last year.

The price of the trip is at least 500 euros (550 dollars), earning the smugglers a couple of thousand for every trip with their vans, a lot of money in Eastern Europe.

Bastian has seen teenagers and even children travelling unaccompanied.

"Parents get into debt to give their children a better future," he says.

Before their night shift draws to a close, Thomas and Bastian stop a coach travelling from Vienna to Berlin. Three passengers are informed that their journey has ended in Pirna.

A young Sarajevo woman's papers are not in order and she is also wanted for credit card fraud according to the database. Two men from Serbia and Albania respectively had previously been prevented from entering the Schengen zone in Italy and Hungary, but have tried again. They are unlikely to be the last stops Thomas and Bastian make, as the smugglers continue to ply their trade.


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