The suspected ringleader of a gang that charged hundreds of Albanian migrants up to £25,000 ($34,093) to be smuggled into the UK has been arrested in a series of raids across Britain.
Seven people were arrested in London, southern and north-east England, in an operation involving about 100 officers, said the UK’s National Crime Agency, which is responsible for tackling large-scale trafficking operations.
The migrants were smuggled into the UK in lorries and vans in an operation that appears to have been run on an industrial scale. Eight vehicles linked to the gang have been stopped since July 2020, including two within 30 minutes, each carrying 10 migrants, the NCA said.
Six of the vehicles were stopped during searches at the Channel Tunnel terminal in Coquelles, near Calais, northern France. The other two were stopped in northern Europe after intelligence was shared between French, German and British officials.
Officers arrested six men, aged 26 to 44, and a 26-year-old woman on Tuesday. They were held on suspicion of crimes including facilitating illegal immigration and money laundering offences.
Some of the migrants paid between £20,000 and £25,000 for their ride, the NCA said. Its financial investigators identified bank accounts believed to belong to the network, with some turning over hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The smugglers are believed to have contacts in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland helping to run their operations.
The majority of people smuggled into the UK arrive by lorry but criminal operations have been disrupted by tighter security at border points and a reduction in cross-border traffic during the coronavirus pandemic.
But criminal gangs are adapting to the changing circumstances by smuggling more people on small boats across the narrow waterway that separates France from the UK. The number of people crossing the Channel this year has overtaken the total of 8,461 for the whole of last year.
The visibility of boat crossings is increasing political pressure on the British government to act after a series of failed attempts to limit the numbers travelling from northern Europe.
“We believe these arrests will have significantly disrupted an organised criminal network responsible for smuggling potentially hundreds of people into the UK illegally,” Richard Harrison of the NCA said.