A people-smuggling gang used a converted fishing boat to try to ship 69 Albanian migrants to Britain in a lucrative operation unusual for its size and sophistication, a UK court heard.
Border force officials intercepted the 30-metre trawler, the Svanic, in the North Sea in November last year and found that the hold had been converted to take passengers – but with only 20 life jackets on board in case of emergency.
The migrants are each believed to have paid about £15,000 ($20,617) for a place on the boat, up to seven times more than the cost of a seat on a small inflatable that are more regularly used by smugglers from the northern French coast for the short trip to Dover.
Prosecutors said the crossing by the Svanic was unusual because of its size and scale and suggested a highly organised smuggling operation. The migrants had hotel key cards in their pockets, suggesting they had all stayed in the same place before boarding the ship.
“Using a fishing vessel such as the Svanic is uncommon and more sophisticated,” said Tony Badenoch, prosecuting. “It requires the organisation to procure such a vessel, crew to skipper the boat, upfront fuel and mooring fees, as well as any other incidental payments for repairs and the like.”
The boat was escorted to Harwich, Essex, after it was intercepted and three members of crew – two Lithuanians and a Latvian citizen – went on trial on Thursday with two alleged UK-based organisers. A sixth man has admitted the charge of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration.
The court heard a mobile phone audio message in which Aturas Jusas, 35, the man who has admitted the charge, is heard apparently talking about investing in the smuggling route.
He says: “We're going to bring every week 50 people, yes, we need to invest now 40,000, if you want, 20 you, 20 me. From first trip we're going to get the money back.”
Crossing to the UK in the back of a lorry costs the migrant about £2,000 to £3,000, while small boats cost £2,000 to £4,100, Mr Badenoch told a jury at Chelmsford Crown Court.
“The cost of a crossing of this kind is estimated to be circa £15,000 for each migrant,” he said. Despite the high cost, the boat still had a multitude of faults, he said.
“The unlawful moving of people in the manner alleged in this case is highly lucrative and it was for that purpose that the Svanic was being used."
Ukrainian citizens Igor Kosyi, 56, Volodymyr Mykhailov, 49 and Latvian Aleksandrs Gulpe, 44, are on trial. Kfir Ivgi, 39, and Sergejs Kuliss, 32, who live in London, were arrested later.
They deny the charges against them. The case continues.