Criminal gangs will focus on lorry drivers for recruitment into human trafficking rackets after their illegal operations slowed during the coronavirus outbreak, UK law enforcement warned on Thursday.
British authorities have reported a sharp rise in attempted small boat crossings between England and France during the pandemic but migrant smuggling overall was down significantly because of the slowdown in international trade.
As the UK eases its lockdown, the head of the National Crime Agency, which targets Britain's most serious criminals, said it had alerted authorities about a probable sharp rise in efforts to corrupt lorry drivers, port and airport workers who may have suffered financially during the pandemic.
“Criminals are criminals and they do things for money,” said Lynne Owens, the head of the agency. “Whether they are moving drugs, firearms or people, they will see this as an opportunity to try to exploit the situation, particularly if there’s an economic downturn and from across the world there’s an increase in migrants.
“That is a risk and why we need to be on top of it.”
The agency reported last month that attempted crossings into the UK by hiding inside lorries, by air and by using false documents increased in 2019 compared with the previous year.
Most illegal immigrants trying to reach the UK come via the eastern Mediterranean route via Greece. Numbers increased on that route by nearly 50 per cent last year.
It said there was a continuing trend for smugglers to use high-risk methods including inside the back of refrigerated lorries.
Thirty-nine people from Vietnam were found dead last year in the back of such a truck in eastern England after arriving from Belgium. The driver, Maurice Robinson, 25, has admitted manslaughter. Four other men face criminal trials in the UK.
Ms Owens said officials were preparing for the full lifting of restrictions that would “reopen and increase opportunities for criminals to transport illicit commodities and illegal migrants towards the UK”.
The warning comes as crime was found to have fallen by one quarter during the lockdown in England and Wales. Fraud was not included in the figures.