One of the most active criminal networks smuggling migrants across the English Channel in small boats has been dismantled. The final blow to the network was an action day on July 5 which was the result of the close cooperation between law enforcement and judicial authorities from Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands and the United Kingdom, supported by Europol and Eurojust.
The smuggling of migrants via small boats is a highly dangerous modus operandi which gradually increased shortly before the start of the COVID–19 pandemic. In 2021, the use of small boats became the prominent modus operandi of migrant smuggling from the EU to the U.K., surpassing smuggling in lorries. By the end of 2021, almost 50,000 irregular migrants attempted to cross the English Channel in small boats, three times more than the year before. In the first six months of 2022, over 11,500 irregular migrants reached the U.K., generating close to EUR 30 million turnover for the criminal organizations active on that smuggling route.
The July 5 action day led to 39 arrests (9 in France, 18 in Germany, 6 in the Netherlands and 6 in the UK) including three arrests of High Value Targets; seizures of over 1200 lifejackets, about 150 rubber boats, close to 50 engines; about EUR 40,000 in cash, firearms, cars and drugs.
Actions against this large criminal organization, often necessitated by the need to safeguard the lives of irregular migrants, have already taken place. The arrests of 15 individuals by French authorities in November 2021 facilitated the identification of members of Iraqi-Kurdish origin within this well-structured criminal network. This criminal group is suspected of smuggling middle-Eastern and East African irregular migrants from France to the U.K. with the use of small boats. The investigative activities uncovered that the criminal network was active since at least October 2020.
A number of logistical cells operating from Germany and the Netherlands, alongside U.K.-based hawaladars, served the organizational needs of this criminal structure. The competition for control of the lucrative migrant smuggling business and for launch sites for the boats regularly resulted in acts of serious violence inside the criminal network, including two attempted murders in committed in France and Germany.
The migrant smuggling network was highly professional, having set up their own logistical infrastructure with specific branches in charge of sourcing large amounts of nautical equipment from within and outside the EU. French and Belgian investigations focused on the smugglers, while cooperation with U.K., Germany and the Netherlands was established to target the supply chain and the financial facilitators.
In May 2022, British authorities arrested a High Value Target on behalf of Belgium. Investigators have since identified more than 70 suspects with different roles in the criminal organization, including smugglers, recruiters, accommodation providers, and drivers in charge of transporting nautical equipment, as well as the suspects in charge of channeling the illegal money flows.
The suspects charged on average EUR 2,500 to 3,500 per migrant, depending on the nationality, to facilitate their transfer across the English Channel. The criminal network changed tactics regularly to avoid detection, also using larger boats and the cover of the night to smuggle as many migrants as possible across, with no concern for their safety. Leads suggest that at times up to 15 boats were launched almost simultaneously, with half successfully making it across to the U.K. The investigators estimate that the network could have smuggled up to 10,000 migrants in the past year and a half, with as much as EUR 15 million in estimated criminal turnover.
Additionally, another criminal syndicate smuggling Vietnamese people into and across Europe has been dismantled as a result of parallel investigations carried out in five European Union Member States.
Between 20 to 22 June, a series of coordinated raids were carried out in the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Belgium, with international activity coordinated by Europol and Eurojust. A total of nine individuals believed to belong to this gang were arrested, and nine properties searched. Several motor vehicles and cash amounting to several hundred thousand Czech crowns were seized.
The parallel investigations all targeted the same criminal group organizing the smuggling of illegal migrants from Vietnam since at least March 2021. The migrants would arrive by plane to Europe under a work visa delivered for one specific country. Once in Europe, the victims were smuggled across Europe to reach their final destination, usually France or the United Kingdom.
The suspects allegedly smuggled their victims in their own vehicles, and in some cases used inflatable motorboats to reach the final stage of the journey, endangering the victims’ life.
Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre organized three operational meetings to bring together the national investigators to establish a joint strategy, provided actionable intelligence and analytical support and facilitated the exchange of operational information needed to prepare for the final phase of the action. Two Europol officers were deployed to Belgium to assist with the forensic data extraction.
Eurojust provided financial support and assisted the authorities in setting up a joint investigation team. In addition, the Agency organized three coordination meetings and a coordination center during the action.