People-trafficking ring smashed in raids across Europe

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The Independent Online

A people-trafficking racket in which hundreds of illegal Turkish immigrants are believed to have been smuggled into Britain was smashed yesterday in a series of police raids. At least 23 people were arrested during the international operation in London, Hamburg and Cologne.

A people-trafficking racket in which hundreds of illegal Turkish immigrants are believed to have been smuggled into Britain was smashed yesterday in a series of police raids. At least 23 people were arrested during the international operation in London, Hamburg and Cologne.

The immigrants were brought into Britain to work as cheap labour doing 16-hour days in takeaways, burger bars and cafés in London and Surrey.

In a series of early morning raids, police arrested eight alleged members of the gang, including one woman and the suspected leader, who is understood to have owned at least 10 fast-food restaurants employing illegal immigrants from Turkey. The suspected people smugglers were arrested on suspicion of human trafficking and money-laundering offences.

Five other people were arrested at the same time in the German citiesof Hamburg and Cologne, which were allegedly used as staging posts by the gang. A further 10 men were later arrested at fast-food restaurants across London on suspicion of immigration offences.

The police said that many of the immigrants owed the smugglers thousands of pounds and ended up working in kitchens as "bonded" labour - working for low wages and never able to pay off their debts. Those who tried to break away were threatened with violence and in some cases, were kidnapped and a ransom was demanded from their relatives at home in Turkey.

All of those arrested in London and Germany were of Turkish origin and mostly in their 30s and 40s.

The illegal immigrants, many of whom paid thousands of pounds to cross continental Europe, arrived in the UK by air, road and sea in small groups to avoid detection.

Although most were men destined for work in fast food kitchens, women and children are also thought to have been smuggled into the country. Detectives say the racket had been operating for several years and "many hundreds" had successfully evaded immigration controls.

The police and Immigration Service crackdown was a year in the planning and was part of Scotland Yard's ongoing effort against human trafficking codenamed Operation Maxim.

Detective Chief Superintendent Steve Kupis, head of Operation Maxim, said: "Many of the communities we have in London have criminal entrepreneurs who are preying on them. People pay money to them to come here, but they don't have any right to remain here and they don't know what these people are going to do with them.

"As they hop across Europe, the most expensive part is getting over the Channel and it's still the most difficult part of the route. Many have to buy false identities and others chance it in the back of lorries.

"They might be told they are coming here to be a student but they end up in bonded employment working in a kitchen or as a fast-food chef and paid minimal wages so they can't discharge their debt. That's where we see a lot of violence - where people try to break away and disappear and there are kidnappings."

The takeaways searched yesterday included the Golden Chef in Worcester Park, Surrey. At one of the suspect's homes, police found £11,000 cash which is thought to be the profits of human smuggling.

Det Chief Supt Kupis said traffickers were increasingly bringing in illegal immigrants in small groups to evade detection.

"You don't see the large numbers in backs of lorries but the smaller numbers little and often," he said.

Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, head of the specialist crime directorate, said: "Working with our European colleagues in this way has enabled us to take out an entire human trafficking network from route to source."