A man has been arrested and charged on suspicion of being a leader of an international people-smuggling network.
Gul Wali Jabarkhel, a 32-year-old Afghan national who has been found to have been in the UK illegally, was arrested in Colindale, north London, by National Crime Agency officers on Thursday evening.
He is suspected of being a high-ranking member of a significant Afghan organised crime group involved in transporting migrants from northern France and Belgium into the UK in the back of lorries.
The group had contacts with organised crime groups in Belgium, and planned to use complicit lorry drivers to regularly smuggle migrants across the Channel, according to the NCA.
After Jabarkhel was questioned by NCA investigators, Crown Prosecution Service lawyers authorised two charges of conspiracy to facilitate illegal immigration to the UK.
He has been remanded in custody. On Saturday he appeared before Willesden magistrates’ court, and he is scheduled to appear at Harrow crown court on 6 August.
Jabarkhel is listed as the director of a company that owns at least one barber shop in north London, according to Companies House records seen by The Independent.
NCA Branch Commander Andy Noyes said: “This is a significant arrest. Jabarkhel is suspected of running a criminal enterprise which involved migrants being moved across the Channel in lorries in dangerous circumstances.
“Organised immigration crime sees people treated as a commodity to be exploited and profited from, and tackling it is a priority for the NCA.
“This arrest is another example of the success we are having in targeting those suspected of involvement in people smuggling impacting on the UK. Others engaged in this kind of activity should take note.”
Jabarkhel’s arrest and charge comes after home secretary Priti Patel said last week that both migrants and people-smugglers would face harsher prison sentences as part of her bid to crack down on the practice of people-smuggling.
The government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which was introduced to Parliament on Tuesday, could see convicted people-smugglers face life in prison, up from the current maximum tariff of 14 years.
New guidance announced earlier this week says that migrants who steer dinghies across English Channel to claim asylum will no longer be prosecuted, after the Home Office had deemed the small-boat pilots to be“people-smugglers” and threatened to jail them for up to 14 years.
Before the change, 19 migrants who steered boats jailed since June 2020 had been jailed for between 16 months and four-and-a-half years.
The Bill will make it a criminal offence for a migrant to knowingly arrive in the UK without permission, punishable by up to four years in prison, and will seek to remove those who enter the UK illegally after they travelled through a “safe country” where they could have claimed asylum.
Those whose claims are successful will receive a new temporary protection status, rather than an automatic right to settle, and will be regularly assessed. People entering unlawfully will also have limited family reunion rights and limited access to benefits.
Only migrants who arrive via official government refugee schemes will have the opportunity to settle in the UK, according to the Bill.
Green MP Caroline Lucas has said that the Bill would “only make a rotten system worse” and that “criminalising people purely because of the way they’ve arrived in Britain is wrong on so many levels.”
Last month, a 21-year-old man was jailed for more than two years for trying to smuggle people into the UK by hiding them in sofas.
In April, a lorry driver was jailed for more than three years for attempting to smuggle 17 men the other direction into the European mainland.
In March, eight members of an Afghan organised crime gang suspected of charging migrants more than £2,500 each to smuggle them into the UK in small boats were arrested by French police near Paris.
Last year, police in France and Belgium arrested 26 suspects as part of the investigation into the Essex lorry deaths. The network of people-smugglers had transported up to several dozen people every day for several months, according to Europol.