Crackdown on immigration racket as detainees escape

Police and immigration officers swooped to close down a massive immigration racket today with a series of dramatic raids on bent solicitors and bogus colleges.

But the operation - part of a new Home Office crackdown on immigration offenders - was marred by a break-out at an immigration detention centre.

The embarrassing security breach at the Campsfield detention centre in Oxfordshire led to seven escapes, three of whom were later re-captured.

Four men who were facing deportation are still being hunted by Thames Valley Police, the Prison Service and officials from the private security firm which runs the centre.

In today's wave of early morning raids, the police arrested at least eight men and women linked with companies they believe helped illegal immigrants to settle in the UK.

Officials believe the firm of solicitors at the centre of the inquiry was issuing false education certificates to immigrants.

The illegals would then "enrol" at one of four bogus colleges across the capital and fraudulently apply for student visas.

The operation involved nearly 80 police officers and immigration officials.

One raid on a terrace house in East Ham, east London, led to the arrest of a man and woman both aged 39, and a 29-year-old man.

Further raids took place on colleges in central London, as well as the north west and east of the city.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith met officers before the operation, on the day she launched the new strategy to enforce immigration laws and catch offenders.

She revealed that employers found with illegal immigrants on their books have been fined more than £2.3 million since new penalties were introduced at the end of February.

Ms Smith also announced a new review by the Home Office and the DVLA to stop illegal immigrants getting hold of British driving licences.

The series of raids targeted 10 addresses, including five residential properties.

Speaking before the Campsfield incident was made public, the Home Secretary said: "Today's raids are aimed at those who facilitate people to come into this country illegally. I'm sure it will be a success."

Following allegations from the business sector that new laws force them to carry out arduous checks on new employees, she said: "Good employers have everything to gain from us clamping down on the bad ones."

Asked if the Home Office had yet developed a better idea of how many illegals are in Britain, she said: "By definition, if somebody has got here under the wire we don't know they are here.

"Under our e-Borders system we will have a much better idea."