International investigative bureau in Vienna to combat “migrant smuggling”

On 4 May 2016, the Austrian Minister of the Interior Wolfgang Sobotka opened the “Joint Operational Office against Human Smuggling Networks” (JOO) in Vienna. In a statement, the Austrian Federal Ministry of the Interior stated that the institution was an “international investigative bureau against human smuggling”. The centre has an initial complement of 38 staff members, Europol intends to second additional personnel. It is intended to be a point of contact for investigations of authorities also from the migrants’ countries of origin.

According to the German Ministry of Interior, the JOO is formed within the Sub-Department “Trafficking in Human Beings and Human Smuggling” at the Federal Criminal Police Office in Vienna. Authorities from Germany, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, the UK, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Sweden, Slovenia and Slovakia, as well as Europol and Frontex, support the JOO as “members”. Legal basis of the JOO is the Police Cooperation Convention for South East Europe (PCC-SEE) with police personnel from the Balkan region and EU countries.

Focus “Balkan route”

The focus of the JOO’s investigative work lies on the so called “Balkan route” and the migration route via Italy. It was started at a kick-off meeting of the European Multidisciplinary Platform against Criminal Threats (EMPACT) on “irregular migration” on 3 and 4 May 2016. The meeting was attended by representatives from Eurojust, Frontex and Europol, as well as by representatives from Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Finland, Greece, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and Kosovo. EMPACT is funding the JOO as an EMPACT priority with 300,000 euros for 2016.

The Bundeskriminalamt, the German Federal Police and the police force of the Free State of Bavaria, as well as the Austrian Federal Police opened a similar regional “Police Cooperation Centre” (PKZ) in the Bavarian city of Passau. The PKZ performs exchanges and analyses of information, analysing and coordinating the migration situation, assistance with “transfers and repatriations” and coordinating deployments of police. Support is given in the event of a “temporary reintroduction of border controls”, coordinating joint patrols and checking documents. According to the German Ministry of Interior, a “cooperative partnership” with the JOO is not envisaged.

Close cooperation with Europol

The new European JOO in Vienna works closely together with European Union’s police agency Europol and is intended to serve as a “regional operational platform” for international cooperation against “migrant smuggling organised crime groups”. Seen as a supporting element of cross-border police cooperation and functioning as an “operational link” to the European Migrant Smuggling Center (EMSC) at Europol, the JOO seeks to involve international investigators in order to work jointly during the “hot phase” of operations.

The European Migrant Smuggling Centre’s was opened in February at a joint conference by Europol and Interpol. The objective of the EMSC, which was first mentioned in May 2015 in the European Agenda on Migration, is to strengthen Europol’s role in efforts to “smash smuggling networks”. The centre is an extension of the Joint Operation Team Mare situation centre launched by Europol in The Hague last year. Like the border agency Frontex, the EMSC has innovative “Support Teams” at its disposal. Made up of “experts and analysts from Europol”, the teams will initially be deployed in so-called “hotspots” in Italy and Greece. Their task is to “conduct investigations to expose smuggling networks” and also to prepare “tangible operational activities” with national investigative teams from the EU Member States. The EMSC consist of three core areas:

  • “Deployments” as a central contact point for the European Union Regional Taskforce (EU RTF)
  • “Operations” to provide operational support for Member States and partners, particularly with the Focal Point Checkpoint, JOT Mare, the European Mobile Investigation Support Team (EMIST) and the Europol Mobile Analysis Support Team (EMAST)
  • “Strategy” to provide strategic support for Member States and partners

All responsible EU agencies receive regular early warning reports in addition to “operational and strategic products” from the Mobile Investigation Support Teams for the purpose of opening investigations or carrying out raids.

Interpol starts “Specialist Operational Network against Migrant Smuggling”

Already before starting the EMSC, Interpol launched a “Specialist Operational Network against Migrant Smuggling” (ISON). It consists of “experts” from source, transit and destination countries. Its objective is to improve the exchange of police information around the world in order to bring migrant smugglers to justice and to break up smuggling networks. Europol’s EMSC is supporting this network with operational measures within its own jurisdiction.

Interpol uses the iFADO system (intranet False and Authentic Documents) set up as a joint document database for the EU Member States for the purpose of authenticating travel documents. The EU border agency Frontex also requested permission to use document images from the iFADO database. They are used within the “Quick Check Cards” (QCC) to store information that is used to authenticate documents. Interpol and Europol are running common operations against “migrant smuggling” such as “Operation Hydra”, already ongoing and ending with a common action week in autumn 2016.

Also the European Union’s Judicial Cooperation Unit Eurojust opened a “Thematic Group on Illegal Immigrant Smuggling”. Currently it consist of national members of Germany, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, Hungary and the UK.

Image: Train station Keleti in Hungary, September 2015 (Martin Kaul)