Police believe the Europe-wide network received payments totalling tens of millions of pounds to smuggle thousands of mainly Turkish Kurds into the UK during the past few years.
The economic migrants paid between £3,000 and £5,000 to be brought illegally into Britain via an elaborate route. Their journeys lasted several weeks and involved safe houses, lorries with secret compartments and, in some cases, clandestine flights to airfields in the South-east.
Most of the migrants have been absorbed into north London's Turkish community, working in low-paid, menial jobs in the hidden economy. Some were given stolen or forged UK papers, and many use the money they earn to sponsor other family members to make the trip.
Scotland Yard said the smuggled people were concentrated in north London, particularly in areas such as Wood Green and Hackney. A national network has also been established with Turkish communities in Liverpool, Manchester and Doncaster, according to a community leader.
About 200 police officers took part in yesterday's raids at houses and business premises across London, in Enfield, Bexleyheath, Barnet, Haringey, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Hammersmith and Boston in Lincolnshire.
Specialist officers also searched the properties and a substantial amount of cash, believed to be as much as several hundred thousand pounds, was recovered.
The eight suspected ringleaders are all Turkish asylum-seekers who had been granted leave to remain in the UK. The smuggling ring is estimated to have made tens of millions of pounds from the racket, some of which has been invested in businesses such as property, cafés and snooker halls.
Much of the money has been taken out of the country and police are still trying to trace its whereabouts. It is estimated that the gang could have made up to £100,000 from a lorryload of 20 migrants.
The raids were the result of a two-year Scotland Yard investigation, codenamed Bluesky, that involved co-operation from law enforcement agencies in France, Italy, Holland, Belgium and Denmark, and Europol.
A further 11 people were arrested on other charges including immigration offences and money-laundering. Two of those arrested were women.
Detective Chief Superintendent Bill Skelly said the network was the largest people-smuggling ring Scotland Yard had experienced and said the operation was the most significant mounted so far to tackle organised immigration crime in London.
Police have intervened 20 times in the gang's smuggling operations in the past three years in attempts to disrupt its activities.
The gang is thought to have been operating for several years before police became aware of its activities.
The number of the Turkish people living illegally in Britain is unknown. The Office of National Statistics says it recorded 52,893 Turks living in Britain in the 2001 census, but this is considered to be a significant underestimate of the real figure.
Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, head of the Metropolitan Police's specialist crime directorate, said: "We have dismantled a huge organised criminal network of human smuggling. We have been working on this operation for two years and we have worked with agencies across Europe. It is a massive operation."
Mr Ghaffur said the raids were aimed at those "right at the top of this network", the so-called "Mr Bigs".
He said the racket targeted mainly Turkish Kurds who hoped to come to Britain for a better life, and who were often aided by family and friends already living in this country.
"Once here, some of these people get into low-paid jobs, others are clearly left to their own devices to find work," he said.
Mr Ghaffur added that those who benefited from the racket were those at the head of the smuggling ring.
Eight men were held on suspicion of facilitating human smuggling - four in Enfield, one in Hackney, one in Bexleyheath, one in Hammersmith and one in Boston, Lincolnshire.
Two women were arrested on suspicion of interfering with the inquiry - in Hackney and in Bexleyheath.
Previous cases of human trafficking
* The Snakeheads, a group of Chinese criminals, is one of the most notorious people-smuggling gangs in the world. Jing Ping Chen, better known as Little Sister Ping, was jailed in 2003, and is thought to have been responsible for smuggling between 150,000 and 175,000 people earning about £12m.
* In May, a man and woman involved in smuggling people out of India to work at fish-and-chip shops in Shropshire were jailed. Charan Singh, 48, above, was sentenced to 15 months after he was found driving an immigrant. Bakshinder Chatha, 35, helped an illegal immigrant get a national insurance number and was sentenced to nine months.
* In May 2004, a gang which made thousands of pounds by offering a "club class" service to hundreds of illegal immigrants they brought into the Midlands was jailed. The ringleaders were sentenced to five years. Immigrants from India sold land and belongings to raise fees up to £11,000 to be smuggled through ferry ports before being dropped at their chosen destination as part of a "door-to-door" service. They were "fed and watered" and transported in people carriers by the West Midlands-based gang who were caught in a joint British and French operation codenamed Gular. Most of the gang were arrested in June 2003 after police swooped on vehicles carrying 14 illegal immigrants in a lay-by near Canterbury in Kent.
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