A trafficking kingpin who smuggled 10,000 migrants across the English Channel in small boats, earning up to £260,000 per trip, has been sentenced to 11 years in prison in Belgium.
Hewa Rahimpur, 30, arrived in the UK in the back of a lorry and claimed asylum. He is described as an Iranian ethnic Kurd but The National has been told that he is in fact from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and concealed his identity.
Investigators say he turned to people-smuggling when he saw the profits that could be made after paying to come to Britain.
The UK’s National Crime Agency seized 60 boats and hundreds of life jackets from a warehouse in Germany used by the criminal operation run by Rahimpur from his house in the east of London.
Rahimpur was eventually arrested in May last year and was extradited to Belgium, where he stood trial in Bruges.
A judge has now found him guilty and sentenced him to 11 years in prison. Another 19 people were convicted alongside him and handed jail terms of between 30 months and eight years.
The NCA, the UK's equivalent of the FBI, said he had a callous disregard for the safety of those who paid up to £6000 to cross the Channel in boats packed with 40 migrants, after being lured by adverts openly posted on social media.
An investigation by The National revealed how death trap boats made in Turkey and transported across Europe are being used to transport migrants across the Channel.
Craig Turner, the NCA’s deputy head of investigations, said Rahimpur was one of the “most significant individuals running criminal groups involved in small boat crossings”.
“We estimate that his network was involved in the smuggling of around 10,000 people into the United Kingdom and at one point this may have been almost 10 per cent of all crossings across the Channel,” he said.
“These individuals were treated as a commodity. These criminal gangs do not care about the safety of those they transport.
“They are happy to put them in extremely dangerous and life-threatening situations and this is why disrupting and dismantling them remains a key priority for us.”
Mr Turner explained that Rahimpur first came to the attention of the NCA back in 2021 when he was linked to handling finances for people smugglers using the underground Hawala banking system. At the time he was operating under a different name.
Belgian police found a number of boats and outboard motors in the back of a car near the country’s border with France, in October 2021.
Sourcing of boats
Phone messages showed that the drivers had been in contact with a UK-based telephone number, engaging in conversations about the boat movements and locations for actual delivery. That number was eventually linked to Rahimpur.
The NCA then discovered he was involved in the sourcing and movement of boats across the whole of Europe.
He would direct other members of his criminal organisation to take the boats to northern French coast, where migrants would be transported.
Mr Turner said Rahimpur's criminal gang made between £175,000 and £260,000 per boat crossing, which he said was “pretty significant” and comparable to the money made by drug dealers, also from “vulnerable individuals”.
Rahimpur was arrested in a park and footage taken at the time shows him being taken out of his Mercedes car.
Kathryn Philpott, the senior investigating officer for the operation that brought down Rahimpur, said he came to the UK back in 2016, in what is believed to have been in a lorry, which may have spurred him on to become a people smuggler himself.
“I think he got involved in it because he probably saw how lucrative it was,” she said.
“He was entrepreneurial and decided to make money out of it. As he had paid money to get here himself.”
The investigators said the exact amount of money Rahimpur made “is very hard to calculate” as all transactions were made through the Hawala system and his money was continually moving around.
While he didn't appear to have any outward signs of an extravagant lifestyle he was buying a “very expensive car” at the time of his arrest, said Ms Philpott.
They admitted there would be people who have stepped into his shoes, but warned the NCA has about 90 immigration crime-related investigations open.
“We have got a multitude of significant operations being run by the National Crime Agency to target these criminal gangs,” Mr Turner said.
He also said while social media companies work to take down people smugglers' adverts, they kept appearing.
“It's a little bit like playing Whack a Mole. Once we've taken one down, another one comes up through the floor.”
The National talked to a source who described Rahimpur as a superficially charming but “brutal” criminal, who was also concealing his real identity.
“Rahimpur came to this country several years ago claiming to be from Iran but in actual fact he’s from Erbil,” said the source.
“And the name he’s been taken to court on, Rahimpur, is not his real name. That’s not uncommon.
“If you claim asylum you can never go back to that country so if he claimed asylum from Iraq then he wouldn’t be able to go back and visit family. So, what a lot of Iranians do is claim to be from Iraq and Iraqis claim to be from Iran.”
After initially operating as a Hawaladar, Rahimpur branched out into people smuggling.
“He started getting involved in the boat smuggling trade, buying boats from Turkey and shipping them to France and then have people on the ground, facilitating seats on the boat and selling them for an astronomical fee. But he became lackadaisical.”
Rahimpur was someone who came across as “being a polite, confident young man”, said the source.
“He was nice to everybody, really nice but at the end of the day he was turning over tens of millions and would instruct his facilitators to be quite brutal in their approach to securing people on their boats.”