An Albanian organised crime group involved in smuggling migrants to the UK has been ‘dismantled’, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.
Since 2014, the network has smuggled mainly Albanian people, including minors, through the northern Spanish cities of Bilbao and Santander.
They would be transported to Portsmouth, Southampton and Liverpool as stowaways in hazardous conditions aboard lorries, ferries and merchant ships.
The NCA conducted several raised between Monday and Wednesday that led to the arrest of seven people involved in the ring — two in Madrid and five in the northern Basque Country.
Among those arrested are two suspected ringleaders detained Monday moments before boarding a flight from Madrid to Albania, Spain’s national police force said.
All seven will face prosecution in the Spanish courts.
An Albanian national accused of smuggling people across the English Water in small boats was also detained by NCA investigators yesterday.
The man, 30, was during a dawn raid in Tolworth Rise in Surbiton, south-west London, the NCA said.
The agency suspects he has helped move people from France to the UK.
Across the stings, NCA investigators seized a raft of items including telephones, computers, bank cards and cash receipts as well as identity and travel documents.
People paid between 3,000 and 15,000 euros (£2,600 to £13,000) to be smuggled into the UK, the agency added.
The fee included food and accommodation until they arrived in the UK.
Many of the migrants are believed to have come to Spain from Albania for the trip, but others were also ‘recruited’ from camps around Spanish ports, Guardia Civil added.
At least 50 people have made the crossing, according to British and Spanish law enforcement, but the NCA says the true number may never be known.
NCA officials have worked with Guardia Civil, or Civil Guard, for more than a year to track down the ringleaders.
NCA international regional manager Steve Reynolds said: ‘People smugglers put lives at risk, which is why disrupting and dismantling criminal networks like this is a priority for the NCA and our partners.
‘In this case, we were faced with a crime group who were prepared to smuggle migrants in lorries over one of the longer ferry and freight crossings into the UK.
‘The dangers of that are self-evident.
‘Working closely with our Spanish counterparts we have been able to dismantle their operation and prevent further lives being put at risk.’
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