The ringleaders of an Afghan organised crime group have been convicted and jailed in France for smuggling migrants to the UK in small boats.

The gang were dismantled following a multi-agency operation involving the National Crime Agency and French law enforcement under the direction of the organised crime division of Paris.

Officers from the NCA and the French illegal immigration police unit OLTIM, working together as part of the Anglo-French Joint Intelligence Cell (JIC/URO), launched an investigation into the network in November 2020, placing members of the group under surveillance.

The gang, who were based in the Paris area, would purchase second-hand boats and lifejackets online, before travelling up to the northern French coast to bury the equipment in sand dunes near Wimereux, in the Pas-de-Calais region, ready to be used.

Seized boats 1
Stock image

Each inflatable boat could carry between 10 and 15 migrants, usually Vietnamese or Afghan nationals, who would be charged between 1,500 and 4,000 euro each to get to the UK.

The group were linked to at least four small boat events aimed at smuggling migrants to the UK, and are believed to have made between 79,000 and 212,000 euros from the venture.

Officers from the NCA-led Project Invigor organised immigration crime taskforce, which also includes Immigration Enforcement, Border Force and the CPS, were able to work with French police to link the group to boats that had arrived in the UK, sharing evidence and intelligence with the French.

In March 2021 French police moved in to make arrests in Yvelines region, west of Paris, ending the group’s activities.

Following a trial in Paris nine men, all Afghan nationals in their 20s or 30s, were convicted of immigration and organised crime offences on 21 April 2023.

Four gang ringleaders were handed jail terms totalling 21 years, and will be banned from returning to France after serving the sentences.

Five other men were given suspended jail terms or fines.

NCA Deputy Director Oliver Higgins said: “Tackling organised immigration crime is top priority for the NCA, and we now have more than 90 active investigations into people smuggling or trafficking.

“Much of the criminality involved in these small boat crossings lies outside the UK, so we have built up our intelligence sharing effort with law enforcement partners in France, Belgium and beyond.

“This includes having NCA officers based in those countries, sharing intelligence and working side by side on joint investigations. And, as this case demonstrates, this is bringing operational results in the form of arrests and prosecutions.

“We are determined to do all we can to disrupt and dismantle these networks, who are putting lives at risk.”

In July 2021 the NCA established a Joint Intelligence Cell (JIC/URO) with the French police unit OLTIM, which sees UK and French officers working side by side in Northern France to maximise impact against OCGs.

Since it began operation 76 organised criminal groups involved in small boats crossings in France have been dismantled.

In order to counter the small boats threat, the NCA continues to work closely with French law enforcement, who in 2022 secured the arrests of around 400 suspected people smugglers.

By Ed

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