Seven people have been arrested in an operation that police think may have “significantly disrupted” a people smuggling network which moved hundreds of Albanian migrants to the UK illegally.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) said the network’s alleged ringleader was among those who were detained in a series of raids in south London, Surrey, Oxfordshire and Hartlepool on Tuesday.
Investigators think the alleged smugglers – who are believed to have contacts in France, Germany the Netherlands and Poland – used lorries and hired vans to move people to the UK from northern France.
The six men, aged from 26 to 44 years old, and a 26 year-old woman who have been arrested are being questioned on suspicion of involvement in a range of offences.
They include suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration, conspiracy to facilitate illegal immigration, money laundering offences and suspicion of possessing false ID documents.
The NCA said the operation involved around 100 officers, was supported by the Metropolitan Police and Immigration Enforcement and that approximately £30,000 cash was recovered.
Searches were also carried out at locations in Croydon town centre, south London, and in Hartlepool.
NCA branch commander Richard Harrison said: “The network claimed to provide a top of the range service and charged accordingly, using complicit drivers to transport migrants in hired vehicles.
“This activity represented a significant threat to both the safety of the migrants involved and the security of UK border controls.”
The NCA said that Border Force officers who carried out searches of vehicles at the Channel Tunnel terminal in Coquelles, near Calais, managed to stop six smuggling attempts in the six months to December 2020.
Another two attempts which have been linked to the network were stopped in May, as NCA investigators shared intelligence with French and German counterparts which led to vehicles containing migrants being halted by police before they could reach the coast.
In some cases, migrants are believed to have paid out between £20,000 and £25,000 to try and reach the UK, according to the NCA.
Financial investigators have identified numerous bank accounts alleged to belong to the network, each showing tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds in turnover.
NCA deputy director Andrea Wilson described people smuggling as “a form of criminality that sees people exploited for profit by criminals who have no regard for human life.”
She added that the penalties for those who are caught are “severe and life-changing” and “it is simply not worth the risk”.