Albanian crime gangs are using people who enter the UK through Channel crossings to work cannabis farms, and are smuggling hundreds of millions of pounds a year out of the country, the National Crime Agency has said.
There are more than 70 live investigations into organised immigration crime, a “significant proportion” of which have links to Albanian gangs, leaders at Britain's version of the FBI say.
A substantial number of Albanians are likely to have arrived in the UK “illegally” and police are seeing examples of “blatant manipulation” of modern slavery laws when those arrested claim to be victims of trafficking, the NCA said.
There are even suggestions that Albanians are being coached while in their home country on what to say and do if they are detained in the UK.
Albania’s Prime Minister, Edi Rama, accused Britain of a “calculated attack” on his country by blaming it for the rise in Channel crossings.
Mr Rama repeated that Albania is being used as a scapegoat for failed immigration policies.
More than 42,000 migrants have arrived so far this year after crossing the Channel, compared with about 28,500 last year.
Migrants at immigration processing centre in Manston - in pictures
Albanians are the biggest single nationality making the journey, with 12,000 so far this year, of which 10,000 are single, adult men.
This is compared with 50 in 2020, Home Office officials told MPs last month.
On Tuesday, senior NCA intelligence manager Ged McCann said Albanian gangs, who he described as “reliable” and “disciplined”, were “effectively bringing in the labour force for the cannabis grows”.
"Many individuals that are arrested in cannabis grows arrived in the country a matter of days before on small boats," Mr McCann said.
Cash is king in the Balkan state, where many people do not have a bank account and there is little use of credit cards, fellow intelligence manager Steve Brocklesby said.
“Albanian OCGs [organised crime groups] in the UK, their main objective when they make money is to get it out of the country as soon as possible," Mr Brocklesby said.
"So, they will smuggle it out of the UK into Albania in whatever form it comes.
"The estimates are that hundreds of millions of pounds UK sterling is leaving the UK and ending up in Albania, where it then gets semi-legitimised either into the banking system or to pay for construction work.”
Migrant crossings on the English Channel surge amid heatwave - in pictures
The amount of criminal cash leaving the UK has risen “exponentially” over the past four or five years, at an increase of about 20 per cent, Mr Brocklesby said.
Other ways of moving the money include changing it into euros, he said.
“We can expect, I think, to see an increasing use of crypto and other less regulated investments in the UK, as well as direct investments into the UK, in the coming years,” Mr Brocklesby said.
“We do know, anecdotally, speaking to police forces around the country, that if an Albanian illegal migrant is arrested in a cannabis grow, then often the first thing they do is claim to be a victim of trafficking.
“That is very different to most other users of the national referral mechanism [the process for identifying victims of modern slavery].
"It is, in many ways, blatant manipulation and it is something we believe from Albania is instilled in them before they actually arrive in the UK.”
The “attraction of the criminality is fairly significant” for Albanians arriving in the UK, many of whom will have a debt they need to repay, Mr Brocklesby said.
"They could earn £10,000 ($12,000) working in cannabis farms for 10 weeks, as opposed to potentially £50 to £100 a day cash-in-hand working in construction and hospitality, or at car washes and barbershops.
He suggested there were “professional enablers” operating within the “legitimate Albanian community”, who “assist illegal migration in many ways”, such as accountants, lawyers and security guards, helping people who arrive to make a life in the UK.
Migrant children rescued in French waters - in pictures
Deputy director Andrea Wilson leads the NCA’s work on threats from Channel crossings and western Balkan crime groups,.
“Currently we have more than 70 live operations into organised immigration crime and a significant proportion of those are into Albanian organised crime groups," Ms Wilson said.
“A significant proportion of Albanians in the UK are likely to have arrived here illegally.
“They are one of the top nationalities coming here illegally, both through clandestine methods and on small boats. That’s not new.”
Albanian crime gangs are “resourceful, adaptable and entrepreneurial”, she said, with London and the South East still the dominant areas in which they operate, mainly in the cocaine and cannabis trade.
But they also have an “established footprint” in towns and cities across the UK, as well as more rural locations.
They have been forging close links with other nationalities involved in organised immigration crime (OIC), such as Iraqi Kurds facilitating Channel crossings from France, Ms Wilson said.
Despite the rise in Albanian arrivals to the UK over the summer months, she said it was not a “new phenomenon” and that there were also many nationals who had legitimate reasons to go to the country and run thriving, legal businesses.
More than 2,000 migrants crossed the Channel within 72 hours between Saturday and Monday, with 400 recorded arriving as Home Secretary Suella Braverman signed a new £63 million deal with France to again boost beach patrols on its northern coastline, among other measures, to try to curb crossings.
Does the UK have a migrant crisis? - video
The Home Office announced on Tuesday evening that four Albanian nationals had been arrested in connection with a boat landing reported in St Margaret’s beach, near Dover in Kent, on Monday morning.
Officers have reportedly been searching for several migrants who disappeared after the boat landed, with some of the group later apprehended.
Two Albanian men suspected of organising the beach landing were arrested after they drove off with two migrants who landed illegally, and were later charged with conspiracy to facilitate illegal entry.
Both are suspected of being members of an organised crime group operating in the UK, the Home Office said.
Meanwhile, another wo men were arrested this morning for arrival to the UK without legal entry clearance.