The beige plastered, 1930s-era row houses lining the road of Priessnithzhof in the northwestern German city of Osnabrück seem designed to attract no attention. On the night of Nov. 12, two men were sitting in a car in front of the building, waiting for Xamgin M., aka Khamji Muhhamad, aka Khmgin Latif – a Kurdish man from Iraq who entered Germany illegally in July 2021.
At 1 a.m., a neighbor jolted awake because somebody was pounding on the door downstairs. Five minutes later, Xamigin M. was lying on the ground with six shots to his abdomen, including his genitals, likely a settling of scores among Kurdish migrant smugglers. Seriously injured, he was taken to the hospital – and he would later go on to tell the police everything: about the migrant smuggling gangs that send refugees across the English Channel in inflatable boats; and about those likely behind the attack on him. He also provided the authorities with insights into the structure of the different groups involved and about where the boats are stored.
Half a year later, on July 5, it was the police who were knocking down doors in the early morning hours, fully 900 of them in Germany alone. Special forces units and elite officers from the GSG 9 – the best of what the country’s law enforcement agencies have to offer – were involved in the raids. A total of 36 of them were carried out in Germany, resulting in 18 arrests, along with 21 more arrests and additional suspects in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Britain. "With this blow, we have broken up one of the most powerful migrant smuggling groups that Europe has ever seen," says Helgo Martens, head of operations for the German Federal Police. The ring is thought to have funneled up to 10,000 migrants through the dangerous route to England since the beginning of 2021. At an estimated profit of at least 15 million euros, though officers involved say the true sum is likely twice that amount.
Buying a New Life – Or a Ticket to Death
The shots fired in Osnabrück and the raids provided a pathway into the secretive world of the traffickers. A world in which a new life in Britain can be had for between 1,500 and 8,000 euros – if the money is accompanied by a bit of luck and the refugees in the rubber rafts are actually successful in crossing the English Channel. If not, their money buys them a ticket to death. Like in November 2021, when 27 people, including a pregnant woman and three children, drowned when their boat foundered.
The international raid, the primary focus of which was in the German state of Lower Saxony, clearly demonstrates that Germany plays a decisive role in one of the greatest human dramas currently playing out on the European stage. Virtually unnoticed by the public, human smuggling groups based largely in Germany have developed, pursuing an unholy business in which they apparently don’t care if their freight ends up in England or in the afterworld.
And its not just the migrants themselves who make stopovers in Germany on their way to the Atlantic coast. The country is also considered to be the most important hub for small boats, primarily inflatable rafts, that are delivered on demand to the seaside, where they are then filled with migrants. Some 80 percent of the boats and the motors, French investigators estimate, come through Germany.
A team of reporters from DER SPIEGEL and the French daily Le Monde joined forces to dig deeper. The trail begins at the camps on the French coast, where hundreds of migrants wait for their crossing. It leads to an inflatable raft dealer in Westphalia, where dozens of the boats originate that are later found on the beaches of England. Our reporting has also revealed that the thicket of investigative authorities occasionally makes it challenging for investigators to do their jobs. And there have been repeated accusations from France that Germany isn’t doing enough to combat the inflatable boat trade. Indeed, it seems a certainty that many groups making money in the smuggling industry have been unaffected by the recent raids. "The Hydra is alive and well," says one high-ranking official.
Defective shopping carts line the path to a camp of hundreds of migrants located at the end of an unpaved road in Loon-Plage, near the town of Dunkirk at the northernmost tip of France. They are all waiting in their tents for the moment when they can continue their journey. Depending on the precise starting point, the southern coast of Britain is just 30 to 60 kilometers across the sea. A deceptive proximity.
The ground in the camp glitters with tiny shards of glass, and a cloud of flies hovers around a box containing moldy bread. Nobody can say for sure how many such camps there are in the area. Some are cleared out by the authorities within just a few days while others have persisted for years. Shots are sometimes fired at the camps, frequently the result of conflicts between rival groups of migrant traffickers.
As was the case in late May, when a young Kurd, likely a smuggler, was shot to death. Shortly before his death, refugee aid workers had reported that a wild gun battle had broken out in the Loon-Plage camp just as they were distributing meals. The aid workers took shelter in a ditch, as bullets slammed into the tree above their heads. Officers later found "ammunition from weapons of war" during their investigation into the shooting, presumably from a Kalashnikov. There are also reports of other violent incidents, such as evidence presented in a secret report from the British Home Office that a smuggler apparently broke a migrant's legs after the latter had informed on him.
"I Belong to Somebody"
Majid A., 37, is squatting on an upended shopping cart in front of his tent. He has been in Loon-Plage for four days, and he speaks German. "Germany is my second home," the Iraqi says. He has been living in Freiburg since 2014, he says, but never received a permanent visa, and the only work he could find was as an intern in a daycare facility. Now, he wants to head across the channel to Britain, where he has family. Plus, he says, you can buy a residency permit there for 10,000 pounds (11,852 euros) – or at least that’s what he’s heard.
So, he is sitting here and waiting for his spot in a rubber raft. And those spots are distributed by the powerful Iraqi-Kurdish smuggling gangs that have the entire coastline from here to the Netherlands under their control.
"I belong to somebody," says Majid A., quietly. That somebody, he says, is a Kurd who functions as his intermediary to the smugglers, adding that he does what the man tells him to do. At some point, the Kurd will send him a message that he should pack his things. As soon as he is across, says Majid A., his family in England will then send the money due to the traffickers to relatives in Iraq, who will then pay the bosses of the smuggling gang. It is a system based on trust, and on fear. Those who don’t pay will have serious problems. Investigators call such finance streams hawala banking, and they are almost impossible to monitor.
A refugee camp in Loon-Plage, a town on the Atlantic coast in northern FranceFoto: Aimée Thirion / DER SPIEGEL
A young refugee in the Loon-Plage camp explains how the channel crossing works. In the evening, the refugees take the public bus to the dunes of Leffrinckoucke, where they wait in the coastal forest for night to fall. At some point, according to his experience, someone from the group receives a message from the smugglers detailing the location of a truck. The truck contains a boat, an outboard motor, life jackets and a pump to inflate the boat. If the police don’t intervene first, the group then heads out to sea in the darkness of night. The man says, though, that he himself has been intercepted on several occasions and sent back.
Aid organization workers say that they have frequently received panicked calls from mobile phones to their emergency hotline – calls made by dozens of migrants on the open sea screaming in fear for their lives. The smugglers, by contrast, remain safely ashore.
The boats are piloted by the refugees themselves, generally with no nautical experience whatsoever. The only thing they have is a mobile phone with a GPS location on the coast of England. If the currents are up, or if there is strong wind and swells, the crossing can quickly become extremely dangerous. Each year, thousands find themselves in distress at sea. According to the International Organization for Migration, 51 migrants died trying to make the crossing from 2019 to 2022. Some bodies were found, others are still missing.
The fact that more haven’t lost their lives is primarily thanks to the Coast Guard, which expends great effort in monitoring the 150-kilometer-long area in France. One police officer says that they now manage to intercept more than half of the boats that embark on the journey, adding that this is a success story.
While the Coast Guard may be able to save lives, their presence has led to increasing desperation among those on the boats as they try to make the crossing. One official French report from the beginning of the year refers to a new danger: Passengers have apparently begun threatening to throw their children overboard when they are intercepted by police. That, the report notes, puts officials on the Atlantic in a dilemma given that saving children is their utmost priority.
The prognosis? Not good. It is considered likely that other human traffickers will quickly fill the vacuum created by the recent capture of the Kurds. Since the beginning of the year, the number of migrants seeking to make the crossing has exploded. From January to the end of June, France counted 22,758 people who were seeking to cross the English Channel from northern France, an increase of 82 percent relative to the same period last year. From 2019 to 2021, the annual number has risen tenfold, from 3,352 per year to 36,763. Plus, the size of the boats being used is growing, as is the number of people packed aboard. Just a few years ago, each rubber raft carried an average of 12 people, but now it is almost 30. Investigators say that the traffickers earn a net profit of up to 75,000 euros per crossing.
Why England? And why the boats? The language is a significant factor, say investigators, since many refugees speak English and many of them, officials say, have family members who have already settled in Britain. Another factor is Brexit: British officials can no longer simply send illegal arrivals back to the first EU country they entered.
And it is simple to have cheap boats made in China delivered to Germany, or to buy them directly from German vendors. France, by contrast, has begun strictly regulating the sale of certain boats and motors: When purchasing such equipment in northern France, an ID and telephone number is required, while large sellers, like sporting retailer Decathlon, have completely removed such items from their shelves. French officials complain that the lack of such regulations in Germany makes things far easier for the human smugglers.
The French were also not amused by an incident that took place last October. As French investigative files show, German federal police forces arrested two men in Lower Saxony just as they were loading suspicious cargo into a delivery van. The officers found five motors, hundreds of life jackets and nine inflatable boats, which the police initially suspected had been stolen. But when a courier showed up the next day with an invoice and a delivery address in Paris, the Germans let the men go and returned the maritime cargo to them. Apparently, none of the German police officers even considered the possibility that the delivery might be connected to human trafficking.
A few days after the release of the men from Lower Saxony, one of their motors made another appearance – mounted on a refugee boat that had just reached the coast of England. The weekly magazine Paris Match published a story on the incident, and the French interior minister also briefed the National Assembly, France’s parliament.
German investigators were furious. On the one hand, sensitive information from an investigation had found its way into the pages of the French press. On the other, German officials have long felt as though they were being scapegoated for a problem that they think must be solved between France and Britain. The issue reached the highest political circles in Berlin, and in late November of 2021, the French interior minister invited his German counterpart at the time, Horst Seehofer, to northern France – but in a slight, Seehofer only sent his parliamentary state secretary. Ultimately, the heads of the two countries' federal police forces met in January, and the climate has improved since then, say sources in the German Interior Ministry.
An Act of Vengeance
And it was about time. With the attack against Xamgin M. in Osnabrück on Nov. 13, the smugglers’ war had reached Germany. Until that point, the clans had been able to quietly establish southwestern Lower Saxony as the network’s most important logistics hub, and virtually without interference. Key figures in that hub were firmly rooted in the local Kurdish community. It was only after the attack that German prosecutors launched two separate proceedings. The Osnabrück police department was in charge of the investigation into the murder, while the Federal Police took the lead in the human smuggling investigation. The result was a taskforce including customs officers and other officials from Osnabrück. Code name: "Channel."
Investigators were able to find their way around a potential hurdle presented by German law, according to which the German Federal Police does not have jurisdiction over smuggling activities that involve transfers from inside the EU to locations outside the bloc. But because many of the refugees ending up on the French Atlantic coast had traveled through Germany, German officials were able to get involved. They monitored telephones, installed hidden cameras and conducted surveillance on suspects.
One key step, though, came in January when officials from the Channel taskforce joined with a Europol taskforce in which France, Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands were already cooperating. The partners had requested mutual legal assistance from Berlin, envisioning a situation where Germany could provide information for legal proceedings in other countries, which would then result in international arrest and search warrants. And that would enable the German police to take action in Germany as well.
As the investigators were able to learn, the attack on Xamgin M. in Osnabrück was likely an act of vengeance between competing gangs. Several months prior to the murder, M. is thought to have carried out an attack in France against a rival with the clan alias of "NATO." The victim was a nephew of the Kurdish smuggler boss Mirkham A. Although his nephew survived the attack, the boss felt the need to take revenge.
Inflatable boats used by migrants to cross the channel are stored at a facility in England in this photo from November 2021.Foto: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
At the time, Mirkham A. was in jail in Le Havre, but that apparently had little effect on the amount of power he was able to wield. French investigators had bugged his cell and were listening prior to the attack in Osnabrück as he spoke of his efforts to acquire Glock pistols in the Paris region to avenge his nephew.
The police investigation found that he was able to unleash a killer commando on Xamgin M. in November despite still being behind bars. He allegedly followed the Osnabrück attack closely on his mobile phone as he was sitting in his cell.
Specialized, Secretive and Flexible
"The level of cold-bloodedness and brutality that we observe in this milieu is unusual for Germany," says an official involved in the investigation. The milieu, says the official, is specialized, secretive and flexible.
Even as he was still lying in his hospital bed in Osnabrück, Xamgin M. was visited by German criminal investigators. He coughed up three names of men living in Osnabrück, all of whom had been born in Arbil in northern Iraq. And they were all suspected accomplices of the smuggling boss in Le Havre and it was thought that they may have helped prepare the attack. The actual gunman, say investigators, wasn’t among them and is still at large. Mirkham A.’s lawyer told DER SPIEGEL that his client is not being investigated in connection with the Osnabrück attack but for involvement in migrant smuggling. Xamgin M. could not be reached for comment.
During his deposition, Xamgin M. provided important information regarding how the clans operate, including details about where boats and motors were stored. The Kurds apparently bought most of their supplies from China and Turkey and they were frequently of substandard quality.
When a group was ready to go, the Osnabrück network would recruit drivers for a couple hundred euros, frequently from the Kurdish community. They would drive to a GPS location on a beach in France or Belgium to make the delivery. If investigators got wind of the delivery, they would inform their counterparts abroad, who would intercept them on the highways of Belgium or France. According to German prosecutors, the Federal Police was able in recent months to prevent the deliveries of 11 inflatable boats in this manner, without the smuggling network learning of the undercover investigation.
A group of migrants making their way across the English Channel in July 2021Foto: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
But last Tuesday, it was time for the police from five countries to strike. "The suspects thought they were extremely safe in Germany. With our raid, we robbed them of that security," says Martens, the head of operations. On a farm near Osnabrück, investigators found one of the network’s warehouses, with officers spending an entire morning sorting through dozens of inflatable boats along with outboard motors and life vests.
Boats from Germany
Just a few hours after the raids, the wife of one of the suspects was standing before the remains of her shattered apartment door in Hasbergen, not far from Osnabrück. The police had broken down the door, she says, and immediately arrested her husband. "Suspicion of commercial and criminal smuggling," reads the yellow printout the police left behind. The place showed none of the gangster glamour one might expect, with her husband apparently not one of the clan members who raked in massive profits. Under the heading "cash discoveries," the police noted the sum of 3,860 euros. Location of the find: "a sock."
The 18 suspects arrested in Germany are to be extradited to Belgium or France soon. But the smuggling industry will likely continue, say investigators. The profits are simply too high and acquiring the necessary boats isn’t particularly difficult either.
Such as from an inconspicuous company in the Westphalia region. The small firm pledges quality on its webpage, saying it fulfills all expectations of versatility. Models made of PVC are available for as little as 1,500 euros. Investigators believe that the company has sold many inflatable boats worth around half a million euros to suspects from the Osnabrück migrant smuggling network. British investigators say the company is the top supplier – by far – of boats discovered abandoned on the coast of England.
It seems likely that the owner was well aware of who he was doing business with, too. After all, officials approached him with questions last year. But the company head seemed unimpressed. He didn’t respond to attempts by DER SPIEGEL to contact him.
The company is based in an industrial park in a town in Westphalia. The sales manager, a young man in a red polo shirt, was recently sitting behind the counter. "I’ve never heard about such a thing," he said when asked if it is true that the company makes money by selling boats to human smugglers, adding that the owner wasn’t there at the moment. He was a bit more loquacious when asked about the boats in the company’s inventory, saying they are produced in China using materials from Germany. The company, he added, sells between 100 and 120 boats per year, and the customers he knows about are mostly families and the fire department. Oh yeah, he added, and DLRG, the German Life Saving Organization.