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Probe to tackle ‘slick’ Europe-wide people smuggling operation

A view of a warehouse facility in Dover for boats used by people thought to be migrants (Gareth Fuller/PA)
A view of a warehouse facility in Dover for boats used by people thought to be migrants (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Traffickers have concocted a “slick” Europe-wide operation to smuggle migrants in dinghies across the Channel to the UK, according to a National Crime Agency (NCA) boss.

Director of threat leadership Chris Farrimond said action to tackle the supply chain in France over the last few years has made it “much more difficult” for traffickers to source their boats, engines and life jackets along the French coast – so they have turned to another method spanning several countries.

Speaking to reporters at a briefing, he said: “So they’ve been sourcing them via Turkey, and basically warehousing them in Germany and then calling them forward as they require them for the crossings. And it’s quite a slick operation.

“And it really required us to get into that small boat supply chain in order to understand what the traffickers were doing. And then attack them where it was going to hit their logistics and make life difficult for them.”

Mr Farrimond described people smugglers as using “cheap, barely sea-worthy vessels” to hold up to 60 people which are driven by an “underpowered engine which can’t really shift the number of people who are on board”.

Discussing the scale of migrant crossings – with more than 12,800 having arrived in the UK so far this year – he said there was a “degree of supply and demand”, adding: “We’ve got individuals who have effectively sold their life savings, or else they’ve borrowed heavily.

“They’ve made the perilous trek from where they came in order to get to northern France. And they’re pretty determined to get across the Channel.

“The only the levers that we can exert from an NCA point of view is that we can make the job of the trafficking groups as difficult as possible so they can’t ply their trade.”

Highlighting the dangers of interacting with people smuggling groups, he warned there was evidence of violence linked to the organised crime gang currently being investigated by the NCA and law enforcement across Europe, adding: “One member of the network was wounded by a gunshot in a migrant camp in France in September 2021 … There are rival groups which is why we’ve had violence in camps.”

NCA officers work in a joint intelligence cell in France and French police have “upped their game quite considerably”, Mr Farrimond said, adding: “They’re putting a lot of effort into stopping the boats going at all now.”

He said: “The French assessment is that if they were to be able to stop 75% of the boats leaving the French coast, then that would effectively break the traffickers’ model. There wouldn’t be enough money in the trade to make it worthwhile for them.

“They’re not at 75% at the moment, they’re much closer to around about 50%. But they really have stepped it up. And they’ve got a lot of coastline to cover, and they’re never going to have quite enough officers for it. So they’re having more success there.”

The NCA has also been working with social media companies to remove information from their sites as well as banks in a bid to track cash.

Alerts have been issued to maritime industries to call on them to report people buying large amounts of certain items which could be used.

On days of “favourable” weather conditions for crossings, Mr Farrimond said it was feared there would be very large numbers attempting the dangerous journey. But he added: “We haven’t seen quite that number at the moment.”

While there has been an increase of “illegal crossings” through “lorry drops” in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as rare occasions where small aircraft and larger boats have been used, small boats are still a “cheap and attractive option for migrants, despite the risks”, he added.