Albanian smuggling operation busted trying to take 69 people to UK

Criminal gang ran aground twice on dilapidated vessel

Incompetent people smugglers were caught after their fishing trawler twice ran aground during an attempt to bring dozens of illegal migrants to the UK.

The Swedish coastguard raised the alarm after intercepting the 60-year-old converted boat and discovering that the inexperienced crew members appeared to have little idea where they were going.

The vessel — a 30-metre long trawler called Svanic — ran aground a second time off the Belgian coast before collecting the migrants from the port of Ostend.

Border officials kept a watch on the dilapidated vessel, which only had enough lifebelts for 20 people, and intercepted it in the North Sea as it headed towards England’s eastern coast in November last year.

The boat was taken to Harwich, Essex, where the 67 Albanian men and two pregnant women were found on board. They are believed to have each been charged £15,000 ($20,182) for the crossing.

The vessel first raised suspicions when it ran aground for the first time off the coast of Sweden after setting sail from Latvia.

“The Swedish coastguard had to go and rescue it,” said Mike Smith, a senior investigator. “They spoke to the crew on board and they were concerned that the crew members basically didn’t know where they were going.”

The Swedes reported the ship to a marine analysis centre based in Lisbon, Portugal, set up by several European countries to combat drug smuggling.

“It was flagged … and from that point on a bit of an eye was kept on the boat from a distance,” said Mr Smith.

Nikki Holland of the National Crime Agency said the boat was in an “appalling condition” and in no state to make the crossing from Belgium to the UK.

“The dangers wouldn't have crossed the minds of these men, whose sole motive was to line their pockets. They were planning to use this death trap over and over again.”

The gang went to collect the migrants from Belgium 15 days later.

The NCA had cited the Svanic as an example of a growing trend among people smugglers to use bigger boats to maximise profits.

More than 20,000 people have arrived in the UK this year on small boats after leaving the north French and Belgian coasts.

The Svanic was trying to land further north, away from the well-patrolled zones of the English Channel to avoid border forces.

Four men were found guilty on Wednesday over the failed smuggling plot. They included two crew members from Latvia and Ukraine, as well as two UK-based organisers.

A fifth man, Lithuanian Arturas Jusas, from south London, pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration.

The trial at Chelmsford Crown Court, Essex, heard a voice message in which Jusas boasted that the gang would bring in 50 people every week. “From first trip we're going to get the money back”, he said.

The five men will be sentenced at a later date.

Updated: November 18th 2021, 4:20 PM