Police arrest 21 alleged people smugglers accused of bringing hundreds of migrants into UK in nationwide operation

Gang taking up to £10,000 to transport migrants to the UK from France, Belgium and the Netherlands

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 06 February 2018 12:22
A suspected people smuggler being arrested as part of National Crime Agency-led operation in Wynyard on 6 February
A suspected people smuggler being arrested as part of National Crime Agency-led operation in Wynyard on 6 February

More than 20 alleged people smugglers accused of bringing hundreds of Iraqi Kurds have been arrested in a nationwide police operation.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) said the strike was one of the biggest ever launched, with 350 officers descending on targets in Teesside, London, Sussex and Newcastle.

It was sparked by an investigation into a network suspected of smuggling people into the UK from France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Migrants are believed to have paid the gang between £5,000 and £10,000 each, with their activities tracked by French, Belgian and Dutch police over the past year.

Their agents allegedly recruited drivers in Teesside and in mainland Europe, with several vehicles being stopped.

The migrants found inside were taken to safety and their discovery triggered a linked operation carrying out spot inspections of hand carwashes in the area.

The trade is one of several identified as hubs of modern slavery, a practice frequently linked with people smuggling, and police urging the public to look for signs workers are being exploited.

A suspected people smuggler being arrested as part of National Crime Agency-led operation in Middlesbrough on 6 February

French prosecutors specialised in fighting organised crime connected with smuggling between Calais and Dover were involved in the investigation, as were multiple police forces, Immigration Enforcement, HMRC and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority.

Tom Dowdall, deputy director of the NCA, said the suspected criminality linked to the group was “severe” and on a large scale.

“It is one of the biggest operations of its kind undertaken by the NCA,” he added.

“We believe we have identified and disrupted a significant network which is suspected of smuggling hundreds of migrants into the UK and planned to carry on going.

“People smugglers don’t think twice about putting lives in danger, employing a range of dangerous methods as they attempt to evade border controls.

“It is a crime predicated on exploitation of vulnerable people and their treatment as a commodity instead of as human beings.

“If anyone in the local community thinks they have information about linked criminality in the area we’d urge them to call the local police.”

There were 16 suspects arrested in Cleveland Police’s area including Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Wynyard, one in Newcastle, two in Hastings and two in the Stockwell and Balham districts of London.

The investigation was part of Project Invigor, an NCA-led campaign to tackle organised immigration crime.

Trainee Superintendent Sharon Cooney, of Cleveland Police, said: “These crimes are not confined to our local towns and communities; they are national and international and require the highest level of response.

“We will continue to work with our communities and regional and national policing colleagues to ensure that people smuggling, the exploitation of the most vulnerable by the most ruthless, will not be accepted.”

The crackdown came after teenage asylum seekers were critically injured in violence linked to rival groups of people smugglers in Calais.

The French port has become a choke-point on migration routes towards the UK, although the vast majority of migrants arriving by sea from Libya and Turkey have stayed in mainland Europe.

Emmanuel Macron has vowed that his government will not tolerate another makeshift camp being set up following the destruction of the “Jungle” in Calais, but asylum seekers have repeatedly returned to the area in the wake of clearance operations.

Efforts by migrants to board lorries, cars and ferries have caused disruption for British travellers in recent years, making security operations in the area an issue in ongoing Brexit negotiations.

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