As many 30,000 people could be involved in the trafficking gangs that are charging refugees thousands of euros for a perilous trip to Europe, the head of Europe's police agency said on Wednesday.
Rob Wainwright said the discovery of 71 bodies in the back of a truck in Austria last month led Europol to the massive people-smuggling operation and the identification of that number of suspects — far larger than the agency had thought.
"The tragic incident in Austria is symptomatic of an explosion in the criminal problem we are seeing right now," he told Reuters. "Thousands of criminals [are] flocking to this spot, this mass movement of migrants and refugees.
"This year alone we have collected info on up to 30,000 suspected criminals and their associates involved in this. That shows you the magnitude of the criminal activity that is ongoing at the moment," Wainwright said.
Europol, which has roughly 950 staff working out of The Hague, is coordinating 1,400 different people-smuggling investigations across the continent, he said.
A surge in the number of people fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and Africa has left Europe with its worst refugee crisis since World War II, and it has presented smugglers with lucrative opportunities.
The discovery of the bodies in an abandoned truck in Austria on Aug. 28, highlighted the dangers faced by those trying to get to Europe from countries, such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, where the victims originated.