ROME — The first to pierce the veil on the illegal Pakistani immigrants may have been the magistrates of Sassari, on the island of Sardinia, investigating another very serious crime: international terrorism. Instead, they stumbled upon a well-oiled machine bringing a steady stream of people to Rome.

The system was simple: false documents, fictitious contracts for seasonal agricultural work, permits that frequently changed hands, and a corrupt official replacing ‘damaged' passports with new, altered ones in the embassy in Rome. And just like that, without even getting their hands dirty, all problems were solved.

Apparently, these Pakistanis were seasonal workers coming to Italy to work the fields near Avezzano, in the Abruzzo region east of Rome. Some farmers from that area were involved in the scheme. But they soon began to have problems with inspectors from the Labor Department and Social Security office. One intercepted message reads, "The people have arrived, but they never showed up to the workplace…They didn't show up, and now the employers are receiving letters."

There was a price list, too: around €10,000 for guaranteed entry to Italy. So-called ‘agents' even issued receipts when pocketing the funds for their involvement. Another intercepted message reads, "In Avezzano we can get 50 or 60 permits! When a permit for a specific person is issued, [and] we can't give it to him…we can give it to you. It is possible to bring another person from Pakistan to Italy with the same documents, we can change the name, this can be done at the embassy."

The accomplice at the embassy was ready to play his part.

It was an easy trick. As soon as the person arrived in Italy, he had to soak the original passport in water then soil it with ink. At which point it would be necessary to replace it, and the accomplice working at the embassy was ready to play his part. You just had to pay.

Unlike their African counterparts, would-be migrants from Asia rarely undertake the risk of a sea-crossing. In any case, it is always necessary to board a few airplane flights to get nearer to the goal. Another recent investigation, carried out by an Italian Carabinieri organized crime and terrorism unit, uncovered a Chinese operation headed by the Beijing-based Hong brothers, Jin Tu and Jin Bang, who had accomplices in Greece, Turkey and Italy. In this case, the planes departed from China, would stop in Russia to refuel, then land on the Mediterranean coast for the last hop to Italy.

[Last month, the risks of illegal migration from Asia came to light in the tragic deaths of 39 Vietnamese whose bodies were found in a refrigerated truck in Essex, U.K. ]

Another probe in the northeastern city of Udine found a band of four Pakistanis based in Milan had set up fictitious businesses to bring their compatriots — as well as Afghans and Bangladeshis — over to Italy, and to Germany, and to Switzerland, via Hungary.

Inside migrant camp during an eviction in Rome — Photo: Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press/ZUMA

It's a commonly used method. According to a 2019 report published by Frontex, the E.U. border patrol agency, Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants arrive principally via counterfeit documents, with the airport in Istanbul being the main port of arrival. From there, they branch off into groups moving by land (hidden in freight trucks) and by sea (mostly sailing vessels manned by Ukrainians). According to official statistics, in the year 2018 there were 5,869 illegal immigrants intercepted along the Balkan route: 1,669 were Afghan, 1,017 were Pakistani, and 980 were Iranian.

The story of clandestine Asia-to-Europe trafficking is, of course, not new. Two years ago the Trieste Court of Appeal ruled the statute of limitations had expired on a longstanding case against Josip Loncaric, a Croatian national, considered the biggest human trafficker of the Balkans of the 1990s.

Loncaric, once a simple taxi driver, is today the owner of assets and companies worth tens of millions: villas, luxury automobiles, a car rental service, even two Balkan airline companies. He has managed the international traffic of illegal immigrants in a ruthless and highly organized manner, separating them on strict ethnic grounds (Filipino, Bangladeshi, Chinese) with connection points in Russia, Ukraine, Croatia and Slovenia. Loncaric's chief accomplice, his Chinese ex-wife Xue Mei Wang, was sentenced to five years in prison and extradited to Italy in 2002.

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