How are people-smuggling gangs exploiting English Channel crossings?

For years law enforcement on both sides of the Channel have been playing a game of cat and mouse with criminal gangs as tactics change.

A group of people thought to be migrants adrift in a dinghy before being rescued off the coast of Folkestone, Kent
A group of people thought to be migrants adrift in a dinghy before being rescued off the coast of Folkestone, Kent

The sinking of a migrant boat with the loss of 31 lives off the coast of France has once again raised concerns about the people-smuggling trade.

For years law enforcement on both sides of the English Channel have been playing a game of cat and mouse with criminal gangs as tactics change and evolve.

But despite millions of pounds spent and dozens of arrests, thousands of people continue to attempt the perilous crossing, with many paying huge sums to do so.

Fees for a spot in a dinghy headed for Britain can vary wildly, with reports ranging from 3,500 to 6,000 euros.

National Crime Agency (NCA) deputy director Andrea Wilson said: “We look to target and disrupt organised crime groups involved in people smuggling at every step of the route.

“Much of this criminality lies outside the UK, so we have built up our intelligence-sharing effort with law enforcement partners in France and beyond.”

One focus in the UK and abroad has been on disrupting the supply of dinghies and other vessels that could be used in Channel crossings.

The sale of dinghies in French towns has reportedly been banned, with kayaks seen withdrawn from sale at a Calais store.

However one alleged smuggling gang targeted by police last year was thought to have been buying inflatable boats and engines from as far away as Germany and the Netherlands.

In the last couple of years, inflatable boats used in crossings have got bigger and bigger, now able to carry dozens of people – but not safely.

Home Secretary Priti Patel and the Government have repeatedly pledged to make the Channel route “unviable”, but the NCA previously said it views organised immigration crime as a “continuous threat”.

Migrant boat capsizes in English Channel
(PA Graphics)

Earlier this month, an international operation saw 18 people arrested by French border police in the Calais, Le Havre and Paris regions of France.

More than 100,000 euros in cash and bank accounts was also seized.

The organised crime group (OCG) was involved in the supply of boats which would each be able to carry between 40 and 60 people, the NCA said.

The network would then arrange departures from the shore of northern France, recruiting migrants in the various camps there.

Ms Wilson said much of the NCA’s work has to be done covertly, but added: “We know it is having an impact.

“We are continuing to look at ways to disrupt the supply of vessels to people-smuggling OCGs, and target those who knowingly do so.”

A joint UK-France intelligence cell that started in July 2020 has been involved in almost 300 arrests relating to small boat crossings, the Home Office said earlier this month.

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