Members of a criminal network believed to have smuggled 10,000 people into the UK on small boats have been arrested in the largest operation of its kind.
The UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) worked with law enforcement authorities in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands to disrupt a group sending boats from Turkey for use at the canal crossings.
About 40 suspects were arrested in a coordinated series of raids across Europe, while more than 100 boats, dozens of engines and more than 1,200 life jackets were seized.
Chris Farmond, director of threat leadership at the NCA, said the process could “impact” the record number of asylum seekers making the journey, but cautioned that crossings continued.
“There is a degree of supply and demand here,” he told a news conference.
“We have individuals who have effectively sold their life savings or borrowed heavily, have made the perilous journey from whence they came to northern France and are very determined to cross the Channel.”
Mr. Farmond said the NSA was only able to “make the work of smuggling groups as difficult as possible” by attacking their supply chains.
At the press conference in London, he said many rival groups were at work, with competition sometimes turning violent in migrant camps, but that the industry would “struggle to recover” if it became too difficult to get boats to cross.
Mr. Farmond described the boats as “cheap and barely seaworthy vessels”, which were enlarged in order to carry up to 60 passengers for greater profit.
The target group was transporting boats from Turkey, storing them in Germany and then “calling them forward” to the French coast – sending them in small numbers inside pickup trucks to avoid the authorities’ attention.
Vraymond said the Slick network was disrupted by the arrest of one of its members in London in May.
Hewa Rahimpour, who is of Iranian origin but has been detained in Ilford, is facing extradition to Belgium on charges of being a prominent figure in the network.
He was identified after Belgian police discovered several treadmills and outboard motors in the back of a car near the Belgian-French border in October 2021.
After a wave of arrests in several countries on Tuesday, investigators will try to get more information from interviews, communication records, bank accounts and documents.
Six people have been arrested in London, including two men arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to facilitate illegal immigration.
They were suspected agents of the Rahimpour network, allegedly involved in organizing the movements of migrants and laundering profits.
Two other men were arrested for immigration charges as part of the operation and a man and a woman were arrested on suspicion of possessing cocaine with intent to supply.
Mr Farmond said that although the number of people crossing the canal in small boats this year was more than double the number in 2021, the numbers are not as high as expected.
He attributed the change in part to the fact that French authorities were “stepping up their game” in preventing the release of about half of all boats, and improving intelligence sharing through a joint unit.
While there has been an increase in the use of trucks, the canal tunnel and flights by clandestine immigrants since the easing of Covid restrictions, the NCA estimates that small boats remain the predominant method of crossing the canal.
Crossing is estimated to cost between €2,500 and €3,500 for a single person (£2,150 to £3,000), but this is still cheaper than using trucks or other roads.
“Each of these is cost dependent and small boats are still generally the cheapest way of illegal crossing into the UK,” said Mr Farmond.
“I would put boats as a higher risk than trucks, but people are willing to make that trade-off because of the costs involved.”
The NCA is also raising awareness in the marine industry of potentially suspicious purchases, such as untreated plywood and PVC tarpaulin sheets, which are used in modified inflatables.
It has worked with social media platforms to take down accounts advertising smuggling services to the UK.