European police have arrested 39 people in their largest crackdown against people smugglers using small boats to ferry migrants from France to the UK.
The Iraqi gang made a staggering €15m ($15.2m) from the operation in which up to 10,000 migrants were smuggled across the English Channel in the past 18 months.
The UK's National Crime Agency told The National it believed the group to be responsible for 10 per cent of the crossings made and officials expect to see a fall in the number of illegal boat journeys as a result of the arrests.
More than 1,000 officers have been involved in about 50 raids in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK to bring the gang to justice.
But it was in a corner shop in East London that the suspected ringleader, 26, was caught.
"He is an Iranian Kurd who has been in the UK for a few years," Matt Rivers, the NCA's regional head of investigations, told The National.
"He definitely played a key role in the organisation, logistics and with the boats. He was a key player for the network. He was working in a corner shop while conducting this major operation.
"Last year, we had over 1,000 boats recorded making the crossing — we have seized around 135, it will have a serious impact."
Despite their lead suspect being Iranian, Mr Rivers said the gang was run predominantly by Iraqi Kurds.
In the raids, 1,200 life jackets, 150 boats and 50 engines were seized, along with several thousand euros in cash, firearms and drugs, some of which were hidden at a German farm and in Dutch warehouses.
It is believed the boats were obtained from suppliers in Turkey.
"The arrests of 15 individuals by French authorities in November 2021 facilitated the identification of members of Iraqi-Kurdish origin within this well-structured criminal network," Europol said.
"This criminal group is suspected of smuggling Middle Eastern and East African migrants from France to the UK with the use of small boats. The investigative activities uncovered that the criminal network was active since at least October 2020.
"A number of logistical cells operated from Germany and the Netherlands.
"The competition for control of the lucrative migrant smuggling business and for launch sites for the boats regularly resulted in acts of serious violence inside the criminal network, including two attempted murders committed in France and Germany.
French and Belgian investigations focused on the smugglers, while the UK, Germany and the Netherlands targeted the supply chain and those who financed the cross-Channel operation.
Carole Etienne, French public prosecutor, said: “The investigation revealed a criminal organisation with a very elaborate financing scheme. It is internationally widely spread with impressive logistical organisation, allowing it to smuggle migrants on small boats to the UK.
“The organisation oversaw transportation of the migrants of all nationalities to the beaches, the transportation of small boats from Germany and the Netherlands, the use of local accomplices like car repairs, car sellers, real estate owners and drivers, and of course the Channel crossings themselves.”
Investigators have identified more than 70 suspects with different roles in the criminal organisation, including smugglers, recruiters, accommodation providers, and drivers in charge of transporting nautical equipment, as well as the suspects in charge of channelling the illegal money flows.
"The criminal network changed tactics regularly to avoid detection, also using larger boats and the cover of the night to smuggle as many migrants as possible across, with no concern for their safety," Europol said.
"Leads suggest that at times up to 15 boats were launched almost simultaneously, with half successfully making it across to the UK."
Last year 50,000 migrants attempted to cross the English Channel in small boats, three times more than the year before.
In the first 6 months of 2022, more than 11,500 migrants reached the UK, generating close to €30m turnover for the criminal organisations active on that smuggling route.
Europol said: "The suspects charged on average €3,500 per migrant, depending on the migrant’s nationality, to facilitate their transfer across the English Channel."
Nine suspects were arrested in France and 18 in Germany.
German police intend to extradite those detained to be prosecuted in Belgium or France.
In the UK, six suspects were arrested during raids in London, while another six were arrested in the Netherlands.
"The successful action demonstrates that good results can be achieved through intensive co-operation and information exchange, which is essential to tackling this growing form of human trafficking," Europol said.
"The influx of migrants into the European Union is accompanied by degrading human smuggling practices. People smugglers often operate in international criminal organisations and their activities put lives at risk. The risky sea crossings and other forms of transit regularly result in casualties."