Multimillion-pound people-smuggling ring smashed

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A multimillion-pound network thought to be behind the smuggling of up to 200,000 people into the UK was smashed today in a series of dawn raids by police.

A multimillion-pound network thought to be behind the smuggling of up to 200,000 people into the UK was smashed today in a series of dawn raids by police.

Several alleged senior members of the people-smuggling gang - thought to be among the biggest in Europe - were arrested in raids at 12 houses in London and one in Boston, Lincolnshire.

Senior officers consider the network to be one of the largest, if not the largest, people-trafficking gang they have encountered.

It is believed the group, a huge pan-European organisation, could be responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of mainly Turkish Kurds into the UK illegally in the last few years.

One source described its scale as "absolutely massive" and " frightening".

This morning's raids were the culmination of a two-year Scotland Yard investigation, codenamed Bluesky, which involved 200 officers and co-operation from law enforcement agencies in five other European countries.

In total, 19 people, including former asylum seekers, were arrested in the raids. Two of those arrested were women.

Eight suspected members of the smuggling network were among those arrested.

The gang is thought to have lured thousands of economic migrants from eastern Europe to Britain with the promise of a better life.

Each would probably have paid between £3,000 and £5,000 to be smuggled - in groups of up to 20 at a time - from the Balkans. They would be brought across mainland Europe to the continent's northern coastal ports - a tortuous journey possibly lasting several months.

Once there, they waited in safe houses until the time was right for them to be smuggled into Britain in cramped secret compartments hidden in lorries, cars or ferries.

Some were even taken across the Channel in light aircraft and flown into small provincial airfields in Kent and Cambridgeshire.

Once in Britain, most have simply been absorbed into north London's Turkish community, working in low-paid, menial jobs in the capital's black market economy.

Some were given stolen or forged UK papers, and many use the money they earn to sponsor other family members to make the gruelling trip.

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 cafes and snooker halls. Much of the money has flowed out of the country and police are still trying to trace where and to whom it has gone.

Police have intervened 20 times in the gang's smuggling operations in the last three years in attempts to disrupt its activities.

The network's kingpins are thought to have come to Britain from Turkey as asylum seekers and have since been granted indefinite leave to remain.

Law enforcement officials in France, Italy, Holland, Belgium and Denmark, and Europol, have all contributed to the investigation.

More than 200 police officers were involved in this morning's raids at five houses in Enfield, two in Bexleyheath and one each in Barnet, Haringay, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Hammersmith.

At one of the houses in Bexleyheath, a specialist police dog was used to assist the search of the property.

Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, head of the Specialist Crime Directorate, said: "We have today 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 today's raids were aimed at those "right at the top of this network".

He said the racket targeted mainly Turkish Kurds who hoped to come to Britain for a better life.

"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.

He said: "Our commitment is to take out such networks and this operation is the latest in our collaboration with the growing number of law enforcement agencies in Europe to work robustly to achieve this mission."

Eight men were held on suspicion of facilitating human smuggling - four in Enfield, one in Hackney, one in Bexleyheath, one in Hammersmith, all in London, and one in Boston, Lincolnshire.

Two women were arrested on suspicion of interfering with the inquiry - one in Hackney and one in Bexleyheath.

A total of six people were arrested on suspicion of immigration offences.

Another man was held in Bexleyheath on suspicion of money-laundering offences.Two people were arrested on suspicion of theft.

At one of the houses raided today, a semi-detached house in Bexleyheath, south east London, forensic officers conducted a fingertip search on a dark blue Mercedes saloon car.

Other officers were conducting a detailed search of a property, at which three people were arrested.

At 10.30am, five-and-a-half hours after police officers entered the property, one of the key suspects was taken from the Bexleyheath house into a police van.

The man, who emerged with a fleece over his head, was then driven away for questioning.