Authorities grapple with a “cellular structure” of people smugglers across Europe as they attempt to combat small boat crossings in the English Channel, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.
The agency that leads the British investigation into the gangs that enabled the border crossings said a high percentage were organized by “criminal networks of varying sophistication.”
“But we have also seen migrants and groups relieving themselves using this method, or migrants who work informally together without an OCG [organised criminal group] Participation, “added a spokesman.
“In contrast to other illegal entry methods, many migrants who use the small boat method are actively looking for interception with the aim of getting into the asylum system.”
The NCA said the number of small boat crossings has increased due to a decline in cargo and passenger traffic during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Organized crime groups have capitalized on this as these forms of attempted crossing required a relatively low level of sophistication,” she added.
“Since then, the threat posed by these crossings has increased as a long stretch of the French and Belgian coasts are used for launching and larger boats that can carry more people are used. Both increase the risks for migrants. “
Government officials also admitted that efforts to prevent smugglers from loading migrants onto trucks for profit, or asylum seekers opportunistically jumping on them near ports, have also had a driving force.
The NCA is looking for ways to prevent smugglers from receiving ships like large dinghies to cross the canal and has alerted suppliers in the shipping industry.
Despite record numbers of small boats arriving, the agency insisted that its activities in both the UK and Europe “have severely disrupted a large number of networks involved in this type of crime”.
“This is an international problem – people smugglers aren’t just targeting the UK,” added the spokesman.
“We continue to generate and share information with international partners, and UK intelligence has been directly responsible for preventing crossings and arresting intermediaries both in the UK and abroad.”
In a recent operation, 18 people were arrested by French border police in Calais, Le Havre and Paris for participating in a gang that delivered boats that could carry up to 60 people.
The network would contact migrants in camps on the French coast who offer crossings and charge them around 6,000 euros (£ 5,000) each to get to the UK.
Detainees in the operation included nationals of Iraq, Pakistan, Romania and Vietnam, and the NCA said there has been a shift from “traditionally homogeneous” ways of working to groups of different races and nationalities working together.
At a press conference earlier this year, Miles Bonfield, director of organized immigration crime for the NCA, said investigators see “loose links” between countries.
“This is not a pyramid structure where a Mr. Big orchestrates all people smugglers in Britain,” he added. “There is a cell structure all over Europe.”
Mr Bonfield said different gangs could “work together for different companies” due to pressure from law enforcement or travel restrictions related to Covid.
He said the pandemic resulted in “less legal routes that criminal groups can manipulate and use” such as flights, the Channel Tunnel and passenger ferries.
“That’s why we’ve seen the move by some criminal groups, people using the highly dangerous methods of small boats that are unsuitable for the purpose of transporting on the busiest shipping lane in the world,” he added.
Mr Bonfield said the “vast majority” of organized crime behind the canal crossings takes place outside the UK, but some gang members have been in the country.
Among them is an Iraqi who was arrested in October after boasting about smuggling more than 100 migrants into the UK in small boats and plotting to organize additional crossings.
Speaking to the House of Commons on Thursday, the interior minister said the disaster, which killed at least 27 asylum seekers in the canal, “strengthened the resolve to stop heinous people-smuggling gangs.”
“What happened yesterday was a terrible shock,” added Priti Patel. “It wasn’t a surprise, but it is also a reminder of how vulnerable people are in the hands of criminal gangs.”
She vowed to “dismantle the criminal gangs treating people as cargo and target supply chains” by applying the new Citizenship and Borders Act, despite the effectiveness and legality of the proposals being questioned.
“The criminals who make these trips possible are motivated out of self-interest and profit, not compassion,” said Ms. Patel.
“They use the money they make for other heinous crimes and we just have to break their business model and of course bring them to justice.