Channel crossings: authorities grappling with the “cellular structure” of human smugglers across Europe

Authorities are grappling with a “cellular structure” of smugglers across Europe as they attempt to tackle small boat crossings in the English Channel, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has said.

The authority, which leads the UK’s investigations into gangs facilitating crossings, said a high percentage was organized by “criminal networks of varying sophistication.”

“However, we have also seen self-facilitation by migrants and groups using this method, or migrants working together informally without OCG [organised criminal group] participation, ”added a spokesperson.

“Unlike other clandestine entry methods, many migrants using the small boat method actively seek interception, with the aim of entering the asylum system.”

The NCA said the number of small boat crossings has increased due to a drop in freight and passenger traffic during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Organized criminal groups took advantage of this, as these forms of crossing attempts required a relatively low level of sophistication,” he added.

“Since then, the threat posed by these crossings has increased, with a longer portion of the French and Belgian coasts used for launch, and larger boats capable of carrying more people being used. Both increase the risks for migrants.

Government officials also admitted that efforts to prevent smugglers from loading migrants onto for-profit trucks, or asylum seekers opportunistically pouncing on them near ports, had also had a displacement effect.

The NCA is looking for ways to prevent smugglers from obtaining ships, such as large dinghies, to use in Channel crossings and has alerted suppliers to the shipping industry.

Despite a record number of small boat arrivals, the agency insisted that its activity in both the UK and Europe had “considerably disrupted a large number of networks involved in this type of crime”.

“This is an international problem – the smugglers are not just targeting the UK,” the spokesperson added.

“We continue to generate and share intelligence with international partners, and UK intelligence has been directly responsible for preventing level crossings and apprehending facilitators in the UK and overseas. “

French police patrol near the dunes of Slack, the day after 27 migrants died when their dinghy deflated as they attempted to cross the English Channel, in Wimereux, near Calais


A recent operation saw 18 people arrested by French border police in Calais, Le Havre and Paris, for involvement in a gang supplying boats capable of carrying up to 60 people.

The network would contact migrants in camps on the French coast offering crossings and charge them around 6,000 euros (£ 5,000) each to reach the UK.

Those detained in the operation included nationals of Iraq, Pakistan, Romania and Vietnam, and the NCA said there had been a shift from “traditionally homogeneous” modes of operation to groups of different ethnicities and nationalities working together.

Speaking at a press conference earlier this year, Miles Bonfield, NCA’s head of organized crime immigration operations, said investigators saw “loose affiliations” between countries.

“It’s not a pyramid-type structure where there is a Mr Big who orchestrates all the smugglers in the UK,” he added. “There is a cellular structure across Europe. “

Mr Bonfield said different gangs may “work together for different businesses” due to pressure from law enforcement or Covid-related travel restrictions.

He explained that the pandemic had meant there were “fewer legal routes that can be manipulated and used by criminal groups,” such as flights, the Channel Tunnel and passenger ferries.


“This is why we have seen some criminal groups moving around by moving people by the very dangerous methods of small boats, which are unsuitable for use, in the busiest seaway in the world,” he said. -he adds.

Mr Bonfield said the “vast majority” of organized crime behind the Channel crossings occurs outside the UK, but some gang members are in the country.

Among them is an Iraqi who was jailed in October, after boasting about bringing more than 100 migrants into the UK in small boats and conspiring to organize more crossings.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday, the Home Secretary said the disaster that killed at least 27 asylum seekers in the Channel had strengthened “determination to stop human smuggling gangs”.

“What happened yesterday was a terrible shock,” added Priti Patel. “It was not a surprise, but it is also a reminder of how vulnerable people are put at risk when in the hands of criminal gangs.”

She has vowed to “break down criminal gangs that treat human beings like commodities and attack supply chains” using the new Nationality and Borders Bill, although the effectiveness and legality of its proposals have been called into question.

“The criminals who facilitate these trips are motivated by self-interest and profit, not by compassion,” Ms. Patel said.

“They are using the money they earn for other heinous crimes, and we just have to break their business model and of course bring them to justice.

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