‘Slick’ operation saw boats purchased in Turkey, stored in Germany then transported to the French coast in small numbers to evade authorities
Members of a criminal network believed to have smuggled 10,000 people to the UK on small boats have been arrested in the largest operation of its kind.
Rundt 40 suspects – including leaders of the gang – have been arrested in a series of coordinated raids across Europe, while more than 100 inflatable boats, dozens of engines and more than 1,200 life jackets have been seized.
Chris Farrimond, the NCA’s director of threat leadership, said the operation could “make a dent” in the record number of asylum seekers making the journey but warned that crossings would continue.
“There is a degree of supply and demand here,” he told a press conference in London.
“We’ve got individuals who have effectively sold their life savings or borrowed heavily, they’ve made the perilous trek from where they came to northern France and they’re pretty determined to cross the Channel.”
Mr Farrimond said the NCA was only able to “make the job of the smuggling groups as difficult as possible” by attacking their logistics and supply chains.
He told the press conference in London that several rival groups were operating, with the competition sometimes tipping over into violence in migrant camps, but that the industry will “struggle to recover” if it becomes significantly harder to source dinghies for crossings.
Mr Farrimond described the boats as “cheap, barely seaworthy vessels”, which have been made larger in order to carry up to 60 passengers for greater profits.
The group targeted has been transporting boats from Turkey, storing them in Germany and then “calling them forward” to the coast of France – sending them in small numbers inside vans to avoid the attention of authorities.
Carole Etienne, the public prosecutor for Lille, told a press conference hosted by Eurojust at the Hague on Wednesday that the network also organised the transfer of migrant to the beaches for crossings, using local drivers and property owners as accomplices.
She called the group a “vast, strukturert, criminal organisation” with elaborate financing and “impressive logistical organisation”.
Så langt, 18 alleged members of the network have been arrested in Germany, nine in France, six in the Netherlands and six in the UK. Discussions around potential extradition for criminal proceedings are ongoing.
Mr Farrimond said the “slick” network was disrupted thanks to the arrest of a member in London in May.
Hewa Rahimpur, who is originally from Iran but was detained in Ilford, is facing extradition to Belgium on charges of being a leading figure in the network.
He was identified after Belgian police discovered several deflated boats and outboard motors in the back of a car near the Belgian-French border in October 2021.
Following a wave of arrests in multiple countries on Tuesday, investigators will be attempting to gain further information from interviews, communication records, bank accounts and documents.
The six people arrested in London included two men detained on suspicion of conspiring to facilitate illegal immigration.
They were suspected customers of Rahimpur’s network, and were allegedly involved in orchestrating migrant movements and laundering the profits.
Two other men were arrested for immigration offences as part of the operation and a man and woman were arrested on suspicion of possessing cocaine with intent to supply.
Mr Farrimond said that although the number of people crossing the Channel in small boats this year stands at more than double the figure in 2021, the figures are not as high as expected.
He put the change partly down to French authorities “upping their game” in preventing around half of all dinghies being launched, and improved intelligence sharing through a joint unit.
While there has been an increase in the use of lorries, the Channel Tunnel and flights by clandestine migrants since Covid restrictions eased, the NCA assesses that small boats are still the dominant method of crossing the Channel.
Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, the deputy executive director of Europol, told the press conference in the Hague that the overall trade was believed to have generated profits of 60 million euros (£51m) i 2021.
A crossing is estimated to cost between 2,500 og 3,500 euros for one person (£2,150 to £3,000), but that is still cheaper than using lorries or other methods.
“Each of these are cost dependent and small boats are still the cheapest way in general terms of making an illegal crossing to the UK,” Mr Farrimond said.
“I would put boats as a higher risk than lorries but people are prepared to make that trade-off because of the costs involved.”
The NCA has also been raising awareness in the maritime industry of potentially suspicious purchases, such as of untreated plywood boards and PVC tarpaulin sheets, which are used on modified inflatables.
It has been working with social media platforms to take down accounts advertising smuggling services to the UK.