Image by Re:Baltica

International criminal gangs are recruiting drivers in Baltic states with promises of jobs moving goods within the European Union. But the “goods” in question turn out to be migrants from Iran, Syria and other far-flung countries.

This joint investigation by newsrooms in Latvia, Lithuania and Hungary takes us inside this lucrative trade in human beings. It reveals the involvement of Baltic nationals in the illegal transportation of irregular migrants on two European routes: one via the EU’s border with Belarus and the other from southeast Europe via the Balkans and into Germany and beyond.

Source: Materials from the criminal case files.

The journalists found that drivers are often recruited through social media with the offer of work in countries like Hungary, Czech Republic, Croatia, Poland and Serbia. Gangs advertise on Facebook chat or use QR codes that take users to secret groups on Telegram.

Recruiters often deceive drivers by not revealing the true nature of the job until it’s too late. When the penny drops, drivers are told they won’t face punishment because they are foreigners, or because transporting migrants inside a single country is not illegal.

Despite these empty reassurances, the numbers of Baltic nationals detained abroad for people smuggling is rising significantly, the investigation found.

Penalties in Hungary are harsh, with sentences ranging from two to eight years in prison. But prisoner numbers are so high that authorities have started releasing smugglers early, to meet EU standards for inmate living conditions and to reduce the costs of detaining foreigners.

Meanwhile, international kingpins of the smuggling trade are rarely caught.

That demand for Baltic drivers is growing is evidenced by a surge in criminal cases in Latvia and Lithuania, the investigation found.

In Latvia and Lithuania, sanctions for convicted smugglers have been lenient, with many getting fines and community service. However, numbers have shot up so sharply that Latvia has recently changed the law to allow sentences of up to 10 years.

The journalists traced the rise in people smuggling from Baltic states to “hybrid warfare” tactics used in neighbouring Belarus, which is pushing migrants from around the world into the European Union in response to EU sanctions. The trend shows no signs of subsiding.

Told through the eyes of convicted drivers tracked down in Hungarian and Austrian prisons, the story offers unprecedented insight into people smuggling in the EU via the Belarus gateway and Balkan route.

The investigation was carried out by Re:Baltica in Latvia and Estonia, VSquare in Hungary and LRT in Lithuania. It resulted in more than a dozen text stories and a documentary.

See the stories below.

Published stories