Criminals are upgrading to bigger boats to bring more illegal migrants into Britain and exploit high profit margins from low-risk smuggling operations, UK investigators said.
More than 3,000 people have reportedly crossed the Channel from northern Europe to the UK in 2021, double the number that tried during the same period last year.
Smugglers charge up to €5,000 ($6,113) per passage. The profitable trade is prompting gangs to use bigger boats to avoid the highly patrolled areas off the English port town of Dover in search of other landing spots, the National Crime Agency said.
Three men were arrested in November last year over an alleged attempt to smuggle 69 Albanians into the UK in a fishing boat. The trawler set off from Belgium but was intercepted off the coast of eastern England by British border guard vessels.
“Migrants transported via this method have a higher chance of being exploited by UK-based criminals than those detected by law enforcement arriving by small boat,” the NCA said in the report.
The rise in the use of boats in 2020 was linked to restrictions on air and freight transport because of Covid-19 and tighter security at the key French ports of Calais and Dunkirk.
The NCA said gangs and migrants were “attracted to the high success rate and low cost-high profit nature of small boats” compared with stowing away in the backs of lorries.
A senior NCA investigator told British MPs last year that it was cheap and easy to pick up a dinghy and outboard motor and charge migrants between €3,500 and €5,000 for a place on board.
Migration Watch, which campaigns for stricter immigration controls, said the use of boats had increased sharply since 2018, when just seven people reportedly crossed the Channel in the first five months of the year.
The NCA said that the number of migrants smuggled in vehicles on ferries and using fake documents on flights had returned to pre-lockdown levels in the final weeks of 2020. Boris Johnson’s government first imposed tight restrictions on travel in March 2020 because of the pandemic.
The new tactics are the latest sign of people smugglers adapting their techniques to cope with Covid-19 restrictions.
Some gangs were using decoy drivers to drive recklessly in front of lorries carrying migrants to divert police attention or block officers if they threatened to disrupt the trade, police organisation Europol said.