Man charged with attempting to smuggle 17 Afghan citizens into UK hidden in lorries

Women and children were hidden behind walls of tyres

A man has been charged with being involved in a conspiracy to smuggle 17 men, women and children into the UK in the back of a lorry.

Dutch police discovered the Afghan citizens hidden in special wooden compartments in a lorry, blocked in behind a wall of tyres, during an operation in 2019.

After a long investigation, National Crime Agency (NCA) officers arrested Romanian citizen Vasile Costache, 53, at Luton airport on Monday as he was about to board a flight to Bucharest.

His arrest was linked to an operation in June 2019 in which a British-registered Mercedes van was intercepted by Dutch police, who were working with the NCA.

The van, loaded with migrants who had been picked up near Breda in the Netherlands, was travelling towards the Hook of Holland where it was booked on a ferry to Harwich.

Dutch police discovered 17 people hidden inside, including five children between five and 14 years old, and a pregnant woman.

The driver of the van was arrested and prosecuted by the Dutch authorities, receiving a 40-month jail term at a court in Rotterdam last year.

Mr Costache, who also uses the name Vasile Matei, is alleged to have worked with other people to organise the attempt, and was due to travel to Harwich to meet the group when they arrived.

He has been charged with conspiring to facilitate illegal immigration.

The arrest was part of a wider NCA investigation into money laundering and organised immigration crime, which has so far led to 18 people being charged, including four others charged over the June 2019 Dutch incident.

NCA senior investigating officer Chris Hill said the arrest of Mr Costache was significant.

“This arrest is a significant moment in a long and complex investigation, and is the final piece in the jigsaw, with all those alleged to be involved now charged," he said.

“In this particular case we were able to work with our Dutch counterparts to prevent a group of people, some of whom were extremely vulnerable, making an incredibly dangerous journey in horrendous conditions.

“For this reason, tackling the organised crime groups involved in people smuggling is a priority for the NCA.”

Updated: October 1st 2021, 1:27 PM