A new report claiming European operations to combat people smuggling in the ongoing refugee crisis are a success has been lambasted by aid workers as more migrants die than ever before.
But a report by EU-wide security agency Europol claimed a year of efforts by the new European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC) was seeing progress.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European Commissioner for migration, said the initiative was “successfully fighting, disrupting and apprehending criminal migrant smuggling networks”.
Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol said more than 90 per cent of migrants entering the EU have used smugglers.
“These organised crime networks are taking mass profits from mass migration, and making migrant smuggling the fastest growing criminal sector,” he added.
“To tackle this, we have brought together some of the best investigators in Europe in the EMSC.”
Almost 17,500 suspected migrant smugglers were identified in 2016 according to Europol’s report, which said that 1,150 social media accounts linked to the trade had been flagged alongside 12,000 “operational messages”, as well as 2,500 forged or stolen documents.
More than 500 “vessels of interest” are also being monitored at sea, although no mention was made of “capture and destroy” missions announced by the EU in 2015 taking place.
Refugee crisis - in pictures
Refugee crisis - in pictures
A child looks through the fence at the Moria detention camp for migrants and refugees at the island of Lesbos on May 24, 2016.
Ahmad Zarour, 32, from Syria, reacts after his rescue by MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) while attempting to reach the Greek island of Agathonisi, Dodecanese, southeastern Agean Sea
Syrian migrants holding life vests gather onto a pebble beach in the Yesil liman district of Canakkale, northwestern Turkey, after being stopped by Turkish police in their attempt to reach the Greek island of Lesbos on 29 January 2016.
Refugees flash the 'V for victory' sign during a demonstration as they block the Greek-Macedonian border
Migrants have been braving sub zero temperatures as they cross the border from Macedonia into Serbia.
A sinking boat is seen behind a Turkish gendarme off the coast of Canakkale's Bademli district on January 30, 2016. At least 33 migrants drowned on January 30 when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece.
A general view of a shelter for migrants inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany
Refugees protest behind a fence against restrictions limiting passage at the Greek-Macedonian border, near Gevgelija. Since last week, Macedonia has restricted passage to northern Europe to only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who are considered war refugees. All other nationalities are deemed economic migrants and told to turn back. Macedonia has finished building a fence on its frontier with Greece becoming the latest country in Europe to build a border barrier aimed at checking the flow of refugees
A father and his child wait after being caught by Turkish gendarme on 27 January 2016 at Canakkale's Kucukkuyu district
Migrants make hand signals as they arrive into the southern Spanish port of Malaga on 27 January, 2016 after an inflatable boat carrying 55 Africans, seven of them women and six chidren, was rescued by the Spanish coast guard off the Spanish coast.
A refugee holds two children as dozens arrive on an overcrowded boat on the Greek island of Lesbos
A child, covered by emergency blankets, reacts as she arrives, with other refugees and migrants, on the Greek island of Lesbos, At least five migrants including three children, died after four boats sank between Turkey and Greece, as rescue workers searched the sea for dozens more, the Greek coastguard said
Migrants wait under outside the Moria registration camp on the Lesbos. Over 400,000 people have landed on Greek islands from neighbouring Turkey since the beginning of the year
The bodies of Christian refugees are buried separately from Muslim refugees at the Agios Panteleimonas cemetery in Mytilene, Lesbos
Macedonian police officers control a crowd of refugees as they prepare to enter a camp after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
A refugee tries to force the entry to a camp as Macedonian police officers control a crowd after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
Refugees are seen aboard a Turkish fishing boat as they arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast to Lesbos
An elderly woman sings a lullaby to baby on a beach after arriving with other refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
A man collapses as refugees make land from an overloaded rubber dinghy after crossing the Aegean see from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos
A girl reacts as refugees arrive by boat on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
Refugees make a show of hands as they queue after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
People help a wheelchair user board a train with others, heading towards Serbia, at the transit camp for refugees near the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija
Refugees board a train, after crossing the Greek-Macedonian border, near Gevgelija. Macedonia is a key transit country in the Balkans migration route into the EU, with thousands of asylum seekers - many of them from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia - entering the country every day
An aerial picture shows the "New Jungle" refugee camp where some 3,500 people live while they attempt to enter Britain, near the port of Calais, northern France
A Syrian girl reacts as she helped by a volunteer upon her arrival from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos, after having crossed the Aegean Sea
Refugees arrive by boat on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
Beds ready for use for migrants and refugees are prepared at a processing center on January 27, 2016 in Passau, Germany. The flow of migrants arriving in Passau has dropped to between 500 and 1,000 per day, down significantly from last November, when in the same region up to 6,000 migrants were arriving daily.
Humanitarian organisations working on rescue operations in the increasingly deadly Mediterranean and providing aid at transit points across Europe say they have not seen any benefit from anti-smuggling operations.
Aurelie Ponthieu, a humanitarian specialist on displacement at Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), told The Independent that refugees were being driven into criminals’ hands by the lack of safe and legal routes to Europe.
“What are the indicators of success?” she asked. “Looking at the number of smugglers caught is not the indicator we would use when we continue to see people dying – there have never been so many.
“One death is one too many and a policy that contributes to death and violence cannot be labelled as a success.”
More than 5,000 refugees died crossing the Mediterranean in 2016 and the grim record is likely to be surpassed this year, with other migrants dying of hypothermia in extreme winter weather across Europe and being shot in the Balkans.
Ms Ponthieu said border closures along the land route from Greece to Hungary previously used by refugees to reach western Europe had forced asylum seekers to resort to smugglers when they had previously passed through openly.
“The consequences of these journeys are dire and continue deteriorating,” she said.
“If one route closes, another one opens and usually it’s more dangerous…people are escaping conditions that are so terrible they will do anything.”
Research by Save the Children found that the EU-Turkey deal had dramatically reduced the number of refugees journeying over the Aegean Sea to Greece but had given people smugglers “a firmer grip on a hugely profitable business”.
Caroline Anning, a spokesperson for the charity, said Europe’s priority should be providing safe and legal routes such as the Dubs amendment to resettle child refugees, which has been scrapped by the UK.
“Unless vulnerable refugees have safe and legal routes to access asylum, people smugglers will always be in business on the refugee route,” she added.
Europol’s report alluded to the knock-on effect of the crackdowns, noting that boat crossings from North Africa to Europe increased after the EU-Turkey agreement.
“Facilitation by train and by air was increasingly reported; this displacement is believed to be the consequence of the additional controls implemented on land and sea routes,” the report said, adding that the supply of false documents was also rising.
A damning report by the Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis found European policy has so far been an “absolute failure”, with refugees continuing to use an array of the almost 100 different and constantly evolving routes to reach Europe.
Researchers found that smugglers’ efforts to evade detection by the EUs Operation Sophia was partly responsible for rocketing death rates worsened by a switch from wooden fishing boats and commercial vessels to unseaworthy dinghies that frequently sink and capsize.
British Government efforts have focused on funding increased provision for refugees in countries outside the EU, including Turkey and Libya, to discourage them risking sea journeys.
On Thursday, the Royal Navy ship HMS Echo was among the vessels rescuing more than 1,100 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea in one of the busiest days yet in 2017.
Conservative MP Peter Bone, the former chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking, argued that improved provision to keep asylum seekers in Italy and Greece would discourage treacherous crossings.
“It’s making these evil bastards [smugglers] a lot of money and killing people,” he told The Independent.
“What you’ve got to do is stop the crossings by reducing the demand and keep people closer to home. These are real people, this shouldn’t be happening.”