Police have smashed a major ring that smuggled illegal Iranian migrants into Europe where they were given false papers to travel on to Britain or Canada, Europol said Tuesday.
"In the early morning hours (on Monday), 11 suspects were arrested in Spain and seven in the United Kingdom," the Europe-wide police body said in a statement issued from its headquarters in The Hague.
Another 20 suspects were arrested during "Operation Marlo," which Spanish police initiated in August 2011 and also involved the United Kingdom Border Agency. The operation was supported by Europol.
The gang -- which mainly operated out of Spain -- allegedly asked Iranian migrants for large sums of money -- up to 18,000 euros ($23,000) -- before smuggling them to Turkey by car and then across the border into Greece.
"The travel continued to other countries within the (European Union's) Schengen area in order to take advantage of the free movement," Europol said.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
The illegal migrants stayed in transit countries until they were given false documents in order to continue to their final destinations "in most cases (non-Schengen member) the United Kingdom and Canada."
"The organisation had good knowledge of legislation on immigration and asylum in different countries allowing them to take advantage of legal loopholes and abuse legitimate forms of migration like weddings, reunions and asylum, thus ensuring the success of their illegal activities," Europol added.
Police also searched seven homes in Spain and 11 in Britain and seized mobile phones, bank statements and forged travel documents during the operation.
A spokeswoman for Canada's Public Safety Minister Vic Toews thanked the agencies involved in the bust.
Earlier this year, Ottawa passed a tougher law against human smuggling in response to a recent wave of illegal migrant ships arriving on its Pacific Coast. A conviction for organizing illegal entry into Canada carries a potential penalty of life imprisonment or a $1,000,000 fine, or both.
"There is an enormous and unnecessary risk involved with the act of human smuggling," said Julie Carmichael, Toews' communications director.
"Our government's message is clear to those contemplating a human smuggling operation: don't do it."