International gangs trafficking families
Seven people have been arrested as part of a National Crime Agency operation aimed at dismantling an organised crime group involved in transporting hundreds of Albanian migrants to the UK illegally.
The group are alleged to have had contacts across Europe, in France, Germany the Netherlands and Poland.
Over a period of six months between July and December 2020 six such attempts were stopped by Border Force officers carrying out searches of vehicles at the Channel Tunnel terminal in Coquelles, near Calais.
All have subsequently been linked to the OCG under investigation by the NCA.
In one of those attempts, in August last year, two vans were intercepted within half an hour of each other, each carrying ten Albanian migrants.
The drivers of all the stopped vehicles were arrested and investigated by Immigration Enforcement.
In May 2021 two further attempts linked to the network were stopped, as NCA investigators shared intelligence with French and German counterparts which led to vehicles containing migrants being halted by police before they could reach the coast.
In some cases migrants are believed to have paid the OCG between �20,000 and �25,000 to reach the UK. NCA financial investigators have identified numerous bank accounts alleged to belong to the network, each showing tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds in turnover.
All seven arrested today are now being questioned on suspicion of offences including conspiring to facilitate illegal entry to the UK and money laundering.
The operation, which involved around 100 officers, was supported by the Metropolitan Police and Immigration Enforcement. Approximately �30,000 cash was also detained.
NCA Branch Commander Richard Harrison said:
“We believe these arrests will have significantly disrupted an organised criminal network responsible for smuggling potentially hundreds of people into the UK illegally.
“The network claimed to provide a top of the range service and charged accordingly, using complicit drivers to transport migrants in hired vehicles.
“This activity represented a significant threat to both the safety of the migrants involved and the security of UK border controls.”
NCA Deputy Director Andrea Wilson added:
“This operation shows that people smugglers are right at the top of the NCA’s target list.
“It is a form of criminality that sees people exploited for profit by criminals who have no regard for human life.
“Those involved in organised immigration crime should know that our officers are working day and night with partners in the UK and abroad to find them, disrupt and dismantle their business models and bring them to justice.
“I also have a message today for drivers, commercial or otherwise, who would consider assisting these organised criminal networks by transporting migrants on their behalf.
This comes as Home Secretary Priti Patel has said a new immigration bill will “break the business model” of people trafficking gangs facilitating illegal crossings into the UK.
She said the new legislation was aimed at “addressing our broken asylum system” and taking action “in a way that we have been unable to take action in the past because of our membership of the European Union”.
The Nationality and Borders bill, unveiled in parliament today, will give Border Force officers the powers to turn back migrant boats attempting to cross the channel from France, and use “reasonable force, if necessary”.
For the first time the way in which a person arrives – legally or illegally – will have a bearing on whether their asylum application is accepted.
Prison sentences will also be increased for people who enter the UK without permission from six months to four years, and a maximum of life imprisonment for convicted people smugglers will be introduced.
The home secretary said a particular focus of the bill will be to make asylum applications invalid from those who have passed through safe European countries.
People who come from France, come from Germany, come from safe countries around the world who then cross the channel in small boats in very dangerous conditions as well, they will not be able to claim asylum in the UK in the way they have been able to for too long”.
This bill will break the business model these criminal gangs are using.”
Ms Patel rejected the suggestion this commitment was dependent on bilateral deals with France and other countries, which are unlikely to be straightforward, and threatened “penalties” against countries who do not cooperate.
“When it comes to our own duties and responsibilities we take back our own nationals from around the world and every country has that moral obligation to do so. We will consider penalties – and it could be visas, it could be other aspects such as visa fees, or even slowing down processing – we will consider all options and that is one of the measures in this Bill”.
A record number of people have came in small boats this year, with nearly 6,000 reaching the UK in the first six months of 2021.
But Labour say the legislation amounts to an admission of failure of the government to control the borders.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “The Conservatives have finally admitted that their 11 years in power has resulted in a broken asylum system – the responsibility lies on their shoulders.
“Yet despite these failings, the measures being proposed in this bill do not deal with the chaos they have created.
“They don’t deal with the fact that the time taken to process claims has rocketed or desperate people are still falling victim to criminal gangs.
“Instead, they will reduce support for victims of human trafficking, potentially break international law, and there are still no effective, meaningful proposals to deal with the increasing number of people risking their lives crossing the Channel.”
A coalition of more than 250 charities and campaign groups, including the Refugee Council and the British Red Cross, have joined together to demand the government rethink its approach.
Chief executive of the Refugee Council Enver Solomon said the new bill risked preventing up to 9,000 people who have fled war and persecution from being given safety in the UK, despite being eligible under previous rules.
He described the legislation as the “anti-refugee Bill” and accused the Home Office of “choosing to not only turn away those in need of safety but also treat them as criminals”.
The Home Office has insisted the changes will “prioritise those most in need of protection while stopping the abuse of the system”.
The number of small boat arrivals in the UK from northern France reached record levels in May with 568 migrants crossing the Channel in the last four days of the month.
In the first four months of 2021, the number crossing – 2,108 – was more than double the 896 who crossed in that period in 2020.
The English Channel
The rising numbers come as Home office staff warn that working 20-hour shifts to process the new arrivals is not uncommon and that there are delays in Covid testing of small boat migrants.
Officials say there has been a shift in migration patterns across the Channel in recent weeks, with Vietnamese people-smugglers switching from lorries to small boats because they are proving to be a more successful way to reach the UK.Advertisement
Contractor Mitie has been asked by the Home Office to assist with transporting new arrivals from the Tug Haven processing centre to short-term holding facilities such as the ones at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire.
“There are not enough staff, not enough space and not enough resources at Tug Haven,” said Lucy Moreton of ISU, the union for borders, immigration and customs staff.
She warned that the small boats processing centre was dependent on medical volunteers to carry out Covid tests and if only one volunteer was available, there could be delays in the testing of migrants.
“We are dependent on volunteer medical support,” said Moreton. “Staff face appallingly long hours most of the time. Shifts running up to 20 hours are not uncommon. We are deeply disturbed by that. It is not acceptable.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Covid testing at the Tug Haven is completed by contractors and not volunteers. We have never used volunteers. Every migrant arrival is tested for Covid prior to entering their accommodation, where they are placed in isolation for 10 days.”
The spokesperson added: “There are no instances or circumstances in which an officer would have taken a 20-hour shift and managers would have intervened to prevent this from happening and we have mitigation measures in place.”
She added that the situation was often changing. “A relatively new development in the last few weeks is for Vietnamese, not classically a nationality who seek asylum, using small boats rather than lorries.” Travelling by lorry takes an average of eight to 10 tries; travelling by small boat takes an average of one or two attempts.
Clare Moseley, the founder of Care4Calais, which supports asylum seekers in northern France and in the UK, said migrants in northern France were becoming increasingly desperate to cross the Channel to the UK because of the appalling conditions in Calais.
“The situation in Calais right now is unspeakable,” she said. “There continues to be a ban on distribution of food in some parts of the town and actions by the police against migrants are unrelenting.
“In many parts of Calais, areas of wasteland have been stripped bare of trees and scrub so that people cannot erect tents to sleep in. We are seeing people sleeping outside on bare tarmac, in disused petrol stations and behind derelict shops.
It is entirely understandable that they would take great risks to escape. In these desperate cases, the lack of a safe, alternative pathway is making a dangerous trip in a unsuitable boat the only viable alternative.”
The NCA are even working in Greece to counteract traffickers.
Officers from Project Invigor, the National Crime Agency-led taskforce targeting organised immigration crime, have taken part in an operation which has seen eight members of a major people smuggling network arrested in Greece.
The operation saw a speedboat intercepted off the island of Lefkada on 14 July as it headed towards Italy, carrying 14 migrants.
The vessel attempted to out-run Greek authorities, but was eventually stopped after coastguards fired warning shots. The pilot was arrested after throwing himself into the sea in an attempt to escape, leaving the migrants adrift.
Shortly afterwards another seven people were arrested as Greek police raided a number of properties in Athens, seizing cash, mobile phones, forged travel documents and another boat.
Those arrested included three Iraqi nationals, two Greek nationals, two Ukrainian nationals and one Turkish national. They will all now face charges.
The organised crime group is alleged to have charged migrants between five and seven thousand euros to transport them through Greece and then onwards towards Italy.
Many would then move up into northern Europe, with some ending up trying to reach the UK.
Routes to the UK
NCA officers, working as part of Project Invigor, played a crucial role in the operation, helping the Hellenic Police identify and locate the OCG’s leaders and providing support to the overall investigation.
Dave Hucker, Regional Head for NCA International, said:
“Through Project Invigor we are seeking to attack the people smuggling OCGs impacting upon the UK at every step of the route, in source countries, in transit countries like Greece, as well as at the UK border.
“This operation, which saw us work in partnership with the Greek police, is an example of that in action.
“There is no doubt that some of the migrants smuggled from Turkey, through Greece and onwards by this OCG would have ended up attempting to enter the UK illegally as well.
Around 100 potential victims have been identified and 38 people arrested following a week long law enforcement crackdown targeting child traffickers.
It was also part of a Europe-wide operation, co-ordinated in the UK by the NCA’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit, and involved 19 police forces from across the UK, as well as other partners including Border Force, Immigration Enforcement, British Transport Police, HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions.
In the year ending 2020, 4,946 children entered the National Referral Mechanism claiming to be victims of trafficking and exploitation in the UK.
Once trafficked, children are often sold on into forms of modern slavery and exploitation, including forced criminality, labour, and sexual exploitation.
Of those arrested, 18 were for child criminal and drug related exploitation, 11 were for sexual exploitation, while the rest were for a variety of offences including domestic servitude, labour exploitation and general trafficking.
In all 99 potential victims were identified through a range of law enforcement activity initiating 51 new investigations.
Although the activity targeted those exploiting children, a number of adult potential victims were also located as a result of the work, with 72 children and 27 adults identified.
Of these, 55 safeguarding referrals were submitted via the National Referral Mechanism.
The intensification period saw increased police presence at London tube and rail stations where suspected victims of child trafficking were thought to be forced to work as pick pockets.
The NCA and Metropolitan Police Service also searched what they suspected to be a brothel where young Romanian girls and women were allegedly being exploited in East London.
The search officers didn’t encounter any children, but they did find several Romanian women working in distressing conditions and being sold for as low as £20 per hour for sex work.
DWP investigators have also begun an investigation into potentially fraudulent claims being made by people at the address.
Due to the poor conditions of the premises and reports of anti-social behaviour, the Metropolitan Police Service will be taking steps to close the brothel and safeguard the potential victims.
Police Scotland identified and safeguarded five minors that had allegedly been trafficked to the UK, launching five new investigations.
Border Force officers also carried out additional checks at the Channel Tunnel terminal in Coquelles to detect potential victims of trafficking travelling through UK juxtaposed controls, finding a Romanian male travelling in a minibus, coming to work in the UK for the first time with no work permit.
His travelling companions had recruited him from his village and paid for his travel and documentation.
He expected to earn just £40 a day.
The man has been safeguarded due to his perceived vulnerability and obvious signs of distress.
Liam Harrison from the NCA’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit said:
“This activity, which was months in the making, identified and safeguarded victims of child trafficking and disrupted those controlling them.
“Our joint work across the week has also sparked a number of new investigations and it is expected that these results will rise over the coming weeks as our operational activity continues.”
The joint week of action was part of a wider EMPACT intensification which involved partners from across Europe.
The wider activity saw a total of 175 arrests and 187 potential victims identified across Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.