A major operation involving law enforcement authorities from Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, supported by Europol and Eurojust, led to the dismantling of a large network of criminals smuggling migrants in life-threatening conditions through the English Channel.
The action spanned over two days, 28 and 29 September. Law enforcement officers from the Belgian Federal Police (Federale Politie, Police Fédérale), British Immigration Enforcement, the Dutch Royal Marechaussée (Koninklijke Marechaussee) and the French Border Police (OCRIEST/BMR62, Police Aux Frontières) within the French National Police (Police Nationale) worked together and 12 suspects were arrested (seven in France, two in the Netherlands and three in the UK). The overall seizures during the two action days included 12 vehicles, 10 rubber boats and engines, 158 life jackets, a caravan, a boat trailer, jewellery, about €48,000 in cash, documents and mobile devices. This investigation targeted a developing trend of migrant smuggling involving small boats across the English Channel, a criminal activity which has escalated exponentially in recent months with increased interceptions in France and the U.K.
This organized crime group consists mainly of Iranian nationals living in France, the Netherlands and the U.K. The network was smuggling migrants with small boats from the north coasts of France to the U.K. The suspects had connections in different countries to organize their criminal activity. Members of the criminal group purchased inflatable boats and engines from Germany and the Netherlands and transported them to the departure points. There, they taught the migrants how to operate the boats while charging an average of €3,000 per person for the crossings.
A British government immigration official said the criminals selling places on these boats have recently reduced the rates they charge by about a third, resulting in dangerously overloaded vessels.
The various elements gathered during the investigations confirmed that this criminal organization would have facilitated the illegal sea crossing of a large number of migrants. This transportation in overloaded boats, and often in very difficult weather conditions on one of the busiest commercial shipping lanes in the world, endangered both the lives of the migrants and the law enforcement officers involved in rescue operations at sea.
Europol supported the operation by facilitating the information exchange, organizing operational meetings and providing analytical support with two intelligence analysts dedicated to this high-priority case. On the action day, Europol set up a virtual command post to facilitate the operational coordination and exchange of information between law enforcement officers on the ground in real time.
In June, Eurojust created a Joint Investigation Team with Belgium, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Europol. Eurojust further facilitated the successful cooperation of the judicial authorities of the countries involved.
Nearly 7,000 people have reached the U.K. in more than 500 small boats this year. This October, the BBC obtained a leaked document that shows the U.K. government looked into putting floating barriers in the English Channel to stop asylum seekers crossing to the UK. The company it sought assistance from responded that such a barrier was not legally possible.
Meanwhile, a lorry driver arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle migrants out of the U.K. has been charged following a National Crime Agency (NCA) investigation. A HGV was stopped by NCA officers, supported by police colleagues, just outside the port of Dover on October 1.
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 U.K. illegally and were handed to the immigration authorities to be dealt with.
The driver, Marius Halmaghe, aged 35, from Romania has been charged with facilitating the commission of a breach or an attempted breach of immigration law by persons who were not citizens of the European Union.
A further Franco-Belgian investigation supported by Europol has uncovered a large criminal network involved in migrant smuggling, trafficking of human beings including minors, forced begging, social benefit fraud and document forgery. Active for several years, the organized crime network illegal profits are estimated at €5 million.
During the coordinated operation, officers from the Belgian Local Police (Lokale Politie Brussel-West, Police Locale Bruxelles-Ouest) and the French National Police (Police nationale) raided seven locations and seized forged documents including ID cards, passports and counterfeit birth and marriage certificates, mobile devices, gold jewellery and evidences of money transfers. The French authorities arrested 13 individuals in the regions of Paris and Lyon including the believed kingpins of the network. Fifteen minors exploited by their own families were rescued and placed under the protection of the competent judicial authorities.
Since April 2018, law enforcement has investigated the illicit activities of this criminal organization operating in Belgium and France. The gang facilitated the illegal entry into Europe of Syrian migrants and supplied them with counterfeit documents to fraudulently apply for asylum and social benefits. The fraudulent activities estimated at over €250,000 per family consisted of registering the same children under false identities several times to earn more social benefits in France and Belgium. The criminals exploited their victims by providing them with forged documents and accommodation in exchange for payment.
The heads of the network controlled at least 80 begging areas in Paris and its surroundings often resorting to armed violence and blood feuds. Forced child beggars were swapped between multiple begging areas and suffered physical and mental harm. Law enforcement officers estimated the weekly profit from this criminal activity to be around €3000 per family. The high-value goods seized during the house searches hints at how criminals invested their proceeds.
Europol facilitated the operational coordination and provided continuous assistance throughout the different stages of the investigation. An operational task force was set up between the Belgian and French investigators and Europol, allowing frequent operational meetings to coordinate the joint investigation.