98 arrests as joint UK/French unit targets organised immigration crime
Almost 100 suspected people smugglers have been arrested in France in a joint initiative involving UK and French law enforcement officers.
The Joint Intelligence Cell (JIC) was established two months ago to tackle the “chronic threat” of organised immigration crime.
The JIC, which became operational on July 21, has also played a part in stopping around 500 migrants from making the Channel crossing in small boats.
The UK and French officers work “side by side” sharing information, feeding into joint operations and investigations, and targeting law enforcement resource.
In the past two months at least four boats have been prevented from setting off from French beaches as a direct result of UK intelligence, while a number of new suspected people smugglers have been identified for investigation.
Of the 98 arrested at least ten have already been convicted in France, with others awaiting trial or in the French judicial system.
UK officers in the JIC are from the National Crime Agency (NCA) and Immigration Enforcement, working as part of Project Invigor, the UK immigration crime taskforce.
French law enforcement is represented by Police Aux Frontières units.
NCA Deputy Director Matthew Long, who heads the Project Invigor taskforce, said: “Organised immigration crime is a chronic threat, and the scale and complexity evolve all the time.
“The JIC was stood up in response to an increasing number of attempted small boat crossings over the summer. It is not just about the exchange of intelligence, but also about joint investigations, and we have had incredible support from our French colleagues.
“Together we are determined to disrupt and dismantle these criminal groups wherever they are operating, in the UK, in France or elsewhere in Europe.”
He added: “These gangs are cynical and exploitative, putting the lives of migrants secondary to profit. We see that in the dangerous attempts to cross the Channel in small boats, or in the tragic events in Essex last year where migrants were found dead in a lorry.
“Invigor, NCA and wider UK law enforcement have stepped up their efforts against them, both domestically and internationally.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “Working with international partners our immigration and law enforcement teams are stepping up our activity against the threat posed by organised immigration crime – preventing people from making dangerous Channel crossings and bringing the vile criminals responsible to justice.
“Only yesterday (September 29), 12 people were arrested in France, the Netherlands and the UK as part of a joint operation targeting a gang engaged in smuggling people across the Channel in small boats.”
The UK arrests were made by officers from Immigration Enforcement’s Criminal and Financial Investigation team at three addresses in Streatham, Greenhithe and Enfield. A 36-year-old Iranian man, a 40-year-old British woman and 33-year-old British man were arrested on suspicion of assisting unlawful immigration to the UK.
Officers also seized approximately £40,000 in cash and four cars.
As part of the same operation, warrants were executed at addresses in France and the Netherlands. The French authorities made seven arrests and the Dutch two. A number of vessels and related equipment was seized by the European investigators.
It is suspected that those arrested were members of an organised crime group responsible for smuggling hundreds of migrants into the UK across the Channel via small boat. They are believed to be responsible for purchasing rigid hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs), lifejackets and outboard motors and to charge an average of £3,000 per person for the crossing.
Ms Patel added: “I remain committed to putting a stop to illegally facilitated Channel crossings and my message to those exploiting the vulnerable for profit is simple – we are coming for you.”
Since the inception of the Project Invigor taskforce in 2015, it has been involved in more than 850 arrests linked to people smuggling, with more than 350 of these occurring overseas. In total, suspects convicted have been sentenced to more than 440 years in prison.
Immigration Enforcement officers and the NCA were part of a European operation this week against a suspected small boats people smuggling network that saw 12 arrests made. Three were detained in the UK on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration. Another seven were held in France and two in the Netherlands.
“In the first six months of this year, the Invigor taskforce has been involved in at least 140 arrests, either in the UK or overseas, as it was involved in a range of activity targeting organised immigration crime groups,” said the NCA.
“This included an operation in February this year, which saw Invigor play a key role in bringing down an organised crime group responsible for smuggling migrants through Greece.”
The Greek authorities, working in partnership with officers from the taskforce, intercepted an Italy-bound boat carrying 19 migrants in the Aegean Sea off the island of Hydra. Two crew members were arrested and another six suspected members of the people smuggling network were detained.
In April, two people in Belgium were convicted of being part of an organised crime group smuggling Iraqi and Iranian nationals into the UK using lorries and vans. This followed a joint UK/Belgian undercover operation. Four further individuals face trial in the UK next year.
In June, a German national people smuggling facilitator was arrested with a boat in the back of his vehicle, and later jailed for ten months in France for organised immigration crime offences. His arrest was as a direct result of fast-time NCA intelligence, passed through Invigor.
Also in June, one Albanian and four Afghan nationals were arrested and £30,000 cash was seized in West London as part of an NCA investigation into people smuggling. Two migrants who had recently arrived in the UK in the back of an HGV were also detained.
The NCA said Project Invigor also continues to target social media sites and pages used by people-smuggling organised crime groups to advertise their services. Between April and June this year, more than 1,300 accounts were referred for closure.
On Thursday (October 1) a lorry driver was arrested on suspicion of people smuggling offences following a NCA-led operation in Kent.
An HGV was stopped just outside the port of Dover at around 1.30pm today as part of an ongoing investigation into organised immigration crime.
In the rear of the trailer officers found four adult male migrants, two Bangladeshis, one Indian and one Egyptian.
They were all suspected of having been in the UK illegally and have been handed to the immigration authorities to be dealt with.
The lorry was booked to sail on a ferry to Calais later today.
The driver, a 37-year-old Romanian national is now being questioned of suspicion of attempting to facilitate illegal immigration.
Although the majority of smuggling cases involve people being brought into the UK, there are also numerous incidents of individuals who seek to be smuggled out of the country.
Doing so enables them to avoid deportation from the UK and exploit an asylum loophole that allows them to stay in Europe. After successfully leaving the UK they travel to Italy and make an asylum claim before returning to Calais to be smuggled back into the UK.
In the event that they are subsequently subjected to a deportation order, they can only be returned to Italy rather than their home country.
NCA branch commander Andy Noyes said: “Criminal groups involved in people smuggling do not care about the safety or wellbeing of those they transport. They just see them as a commodity to be profited from.
“We are determined to do all we can to disrupt their activities.
“In this case four individuals have been prevented from making what was undoubtedly a dangerous journey.
“Our investigation continues.”