An “epidemic” of cannabis farms has led to a surge in the number of Albanians being jailed, an investigation by The Telegraph has found.
More than 100 illegal Albanian migrants have been sentenced to more than 300 years in jail in just three months after being recruited by organised crime gangs to service the rapidly growing number of cannabis farms.
Three-quarters (77) of the 101 Albanians jailed between August and October this year were convicted of offences linked to cannabis production across England and Wales run by gangs, according to an analysis of cases by The Telegraph.
The number of convictions is quadruple the normal rate for Albanians.
Many of the illegal migrants were recruited by the gangs after a government crackdown on black economy work made it difficult for them to find jobs.
Ministers have tripled fines for bosses who employ illegal migrants to up to £60,000 per worker in a move designed to make the practice so economically damaging it could “put them out of business”.
A police operation targeting cannabis farms this summer also involved officers seizing up to £130 million worth of cannabis plants and arresting almost 1,000 people. More than 180,000 plants have been discovered in the raids across England and Wales.
Operation Mille targeted the illegal crops which police believe are a cash cow for organised crime gangs (OCGs) that are also involved in other offences such as money laundering, Class A drug smuggling and violence.
In the past five years, Albanian gangs have cornered the market in cannabis farming, usurping the Vietnamese by importing their hydroponic expertise in growing the plants in Albania to the UK and using illegal migrants as “gardeners”.
The number of Albanians crossing the Channel in 2022 in small boats jumped to 12,301 from 800 in 2021, more than a quarter of the total 45,755 arrivals.
Among those jailed this summer was Nard Nidri, 34, who entered the UK illegally last summer, and lived in Birmingham and then moved to Swansea where he worked in a car wash before being recruited for a cannabis farm.
He was one of four “gardeners” jailed for a combined total of six years in August after police arrested them at a property in Neath, south Wales, where two rooms and the attic had been adapted and insulated to grow plants with a street value of £85,000.
‘Something of an industry’
Sentencing them, Judge Geraint Walters said cannabis farms being run by Albanian criminal gangs had reached “epidemic levels” and had, in his judgment, “become something of an industry”.
He suggested the authorities should look at the rental housing sector, noting that while so-called cannabis “farmers” often appeared in court, landlords and others receiving money from the rent of properties being used for the growing operations rarely did so.
Other Albanians have worked for the gangs to pay off debts. Artenis Shehu, 20, was jailed for a year after working in a cannabis farm on the Norfolk Broads to clear what he claimed was a £2,500 debt he had with an organised crime gang to pay for a medical operation for his father.
Judge Andrew Shaw told Shehu the £225,000 cannabis operation was a “sophisticated set-up” which had “all the hallmarks” of “serious organised crime”. “The message has got to go out that being exploited by serious organised criminals is not a get out of jail free card,” he said.
Albanian gangs moved into cannabis because it was “very, very low risk,” turned a good profit due to high demand – Britons consumed 240 tonnes of the drug worth £2.4 billion in 2021 – and does not require risky cross-border transportation because it is home grown, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA).
This week, James Cleverly, the Home Secretary, signed a new agreement with Albania to build on the fast-track deportation and counter-immigration deal which has seen the number of crossings by Albanians reduced by 90 per cent this year.