The Hague, 6 July 2022
Concerted work on several national law enforcement investigations across the EU has led to the dismantling of one of the most active criminal networks smuggling migrants across the English Channel in small boats. The final blow to the network was the result of the close cooperation between law enforcement and judicial authorities from Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands and the United Kingdom, supported by Europol and Eurojust.
The action day on 5 July led to:
- 39 arrests (9 in France, 18 in Germany, 6 in the Netherlands and 6 in the UK)
- Three High Value Targets arrested
- Over 50 location searches
- Seizures include over 1200 lifejackets, about 150 rubber boats, close to 50 engines; about EUR 40 000 in cash, firearms, cars and drugs
Criminal network taking half of the market share
Actions against this large criminal organisation, often necessitated by the need to safeguard the lives of irregular migrants, have already taken place. The arrests of 15 individuals by French authorities in November 2021 facilitated the identification of members of Iraqi-Kurdish origin within this well-structured criminal network. This criminal group is suspected of smuggling middle-Eastern and East African irregular migrants from France to the UK with the use of small boats. The investigative activities uncovered that the criminal network was active since at least October 2020.
A number of logistical cells operating from Germany and the Netherlands, alongside UK-based hawaladars, served the organisational needs of this criminal structure. The competition for control of the lucrative migrant smuggling business and for launch sites for the boats regularly resulted in acts of serious violence inside the criminal network, including two attempted murders in committed in France and Germany.
The migrant smuggling network was highly professional, having set up their own logistical infrastructure with specific branches in charge of sourcing large amounts of nautical equipment from within and outside the EU. French and Belgian investigations focused on the smugglers, while cooperation with UK, Germany and the Netherlands was established to target the supply chain and the financial facilitators.
In May 2022, British authorities arrested a High Value Target on behalf of Belgium. Investigators have since identified more than 70 suspects with different roles in the criminal organisation, including smugglers, recruiters, accommodation providers, and drivers in charge of transporting nautical equipment, as well as the suspects in charge of channelling the illegal money flows.
The suspects charged on average EUR 2 500 to 3 500 per migrant, depending on the nationality, to facilitate their transfer across the English Channel. The criminal network changed tactics regularly to avoid detection, also using larger boats and the cover of the night to smuggle as many migrants as possible across, with no concern for their safety. Leads suggest that at times up to 15 boats were launched almost simultaneously, with half successfully making it across to the UK. The investigators estimate that the network could have smuggled up to 10 000 migrants in the past year and a half, with as much as EUR 15 million in estimated criminal turnover.
Sharp increase in migrant smuggling with small boats
The smuggling of migrants via small boats is a highly dangerous modus operandi which gradually increased shortly before the start of the COVID–19 pandemic. In 2021, the use of small boats became the prominent modus operandi of migrant smuggling from the EU to the UK, surpassing smuggling in lorries. By the end of 2021, almost 50 000 irregular migrants attempted to cross the English Channel in small boats, three times more than the year before. In the first 6 months of 2022, over 11 500 irregular migrants reached the UK, generating close to EUR 30 million turnover for the criminal organisations active on that smuggling route.
Dedicated Task Force at Europol to connect the dots
An Operational Task Force (OTF) involving Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands and the UK, coordinated by Europol, was established. This OTF supports investigations targeting criminal networks smuggling migrants with small boats – an increasing phenomenon putting the life of migrants at great risk. Authorities focused on a number of high-level smugglers, also known as High Value Targets, whose prosecution offers a means to seriously disrupt or even halt the functioning of the criminal network. Europol appointed dedicated experts to identify the criminal connections between several national investigations. In the aftermath of the tragedy unfolding in the English Channel in November 2021, Europol initiated a permanent deployment to the specialised investigation cell (URO/CIC), set up by France and the UK, to specifically target migrant smuggling with the use of small boats.
OTF Dune investigators benefited extensively from the dedicated financial instrument set up by Europol to facilitate such high profile investigations, with over EUR 250 000 awarded to the participating countries to manage various aspects of their investigative work.
During the action day, Europol facilitated the deployment of over 20 investigators to several locations in Germany, Netherlands and UK. Moreover, three Europol experts assisted the authorities in Belgium, France and Germany to cross-check in real time operation information against Europol’s databases, perform digital forensics and support the investigators in the field with new leads.
Eurojust set up a coordination centre to enable rapid cooperation between the judicial authorities involved in the action day and hosted coordination meetings to facilitate judicial cooperation and the preparation of the joint action day.
Law enforcement authorities involved:
Belgium – Belgium Federal Police (Federale Politie/Police Fédérale) France – French Border Police (OCRIEST-BMR Lille)
Germany – German Federal Police (Bundespolizei) and German Regional Police (Landespolizei Osnabrück)
The Netherlands – Royal Marechaussee (Koninklijke Marechaussee)
The United Kingdom – National Crime Agency
Judicial authorities involved:
France: Court of Lille (Tribunal Judiciare de Lille)
Germany: Public Prosecution Office Osnabrück (Staatsanwaltschaft Osnabrück)
The Netherlands: National Public Prosecution Office (Landelijk Parket); Public Prosecution Office of Oost-Brabant (Parket Oost-Brabant)
Belgium: Prosecution Office of West-Flanders and Investigative Judge in Bruges (Parket Brugge); Federal Prosecutors’ Office (Federaal Parket)