A people-smuggling gang believed to be behind a quarter of the migrants arriving in Britain has been smashed in the biggest ever international police operation of its kind.
More than 900 officers from Britain, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Germany staged dawn raids on Tuesday to arrest gang members suspected of smuggling 10,000 people to Britain across the Channel on small boats – a quarter of the 40,000 arrivals since the start of last year.
German police deployed their elite GSG 9 unit and special forces to target the ringleaders of the operation, who were feared to be armed and violent, in Osnabruck, according to newspaper reports in Germany.
The gang used Germany to warehouse boats, engines and other equipment brought in via Turkey before moving the vessels to the north coast of France for the migrants to set off for Britain.
They were making £65,000 per crossing, with up to 20 people crammed into each boat, according to the German press.
At least 18 suspected people-smugglers were said to have been arrested in Germany. In the UK, police arrested six men and a woman in the Docklands and Catford areas of London as part of the operation, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA).
Those detained included a 26-year-old man arrested in Rushey Green, Catford, on suspicion of conspiring to facilitate illegal immigration, and a 22-year-old man arrested in St Davids Square on the Isle of Dogs.
A 20-year-old woman and an 18-year-old man were also detained on suspicion of possessing class A drugs with intent to supply after a quantity of what was suspected to be cocaine was found. They remain in custody and are being questioned by NCA investigators.
Two other men were arrested for immigration offences and will be dealt with by the immigration authorities.
‘This is tough organised crime’
The NCA said: “Officers have joined what is believed to be the biggest ever international operation targeting criminal networks suspected of using small boats to smuggle thousands of people into the UK.”
The multinational operation came after Gerald Darmanin, the French interior minister, had complained that 90 per cent of the equipment for cross-Channel people-smuggling operations came from Germany.
One of the ringleaders is in prison in France after a rival was shot 10 times in Osnabruck last November but survived despite serious wounds to his abdomen.
“This is tough organised crime. They are not squeamish when it comes to territorial disputes and in fighting for power,” an investigator told Bild.
Europol – which co-ordinated the operation – and the NCA are on Wednesday expected to announce further details of the raids, likely to be hailed by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, as a major breakthrough in efforts to combat people-smugglers.
A total of 12,700 people have made the treacherous journey across the 21-mile Dover Straits in 378 boats so far this year – double the number at the same point last year. Some 28,526 people made the crossing last year, compared to the 8,410 who arrived in 2020.
More than 3,000 crossings last month
Smugglers will face maximum sentences of life in prison under the Nationality and Borders Act, which took effect last week and also aims to make it harder for those who enter the UK illegally to claim asylum.
The Government’s controversial Rwanda policy, which promised to fly those arriving illegally to Britain to the east African country, has stalled following a slew of legal challenges.
Ms Patel announced the policy in an attempt to deter people from crossing the Channel in small boats, but more than 3,000 crossed last month – the highest monthly total this year.
Some 3,136 people made the crossing on 76 boats in the 30-day period, with journeys taking place on 19 of those days.