Kingpins in Channel smuggling operations living freely in the UK, say migrants

Three of the kingpins in operations to smuggle thousands of asylum seekers across the Channel in small boats are living and working freely in the UK and have evaded detection by the Home Office and law enforcement agencies, migrants interviewed by the Guardian have claimed.

Asylum seekers interviewed by the Guardian on condition of anonymity who have communicated with the three men they say are among those at the top of the cross-Channel smuggling operations estimate that during the busy summer season each of these three men could be laundering up to £100,000 a day.

They say one of the men is Syrian, a second is from Iran and the third from Afghanistan. All use false names. The asylum seekers say they believe the men have the right to live and work in the UK and some are also running legitimate businesses.

They believe the men use their extensive networks in Germany, the Netherlands, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, who move the payments made by asylum seekers for them, to help launder the money.

Charities that work closely with refugees, but did not wish to be named for fear of reprisals against their volunteers said they recognised the claims made by the asylum seekers the Guardian spoke to, and said the three men were likely to be among many operating different smuggling operations from the UK.

So far this year more than 8,474 migrants have crossed the Channel in small boats, an increase on the entire total for 2020 of 8,420 and a sharp rise on the just 300 small boat crossings in 2018 and 1,800 in 2019. However, overall, the numbers of asylum seekers coming to the UK have dropped, with a 24% reduction on the previous year in the year ending March 2021.

Informal asylum seeker networks share the WhatsApp numbers of the UK-based smugglers. The process involves the asylum seekers raising funds for the trip – typically £2,000 to £3,000 – then messaging the UK-based smuggler on WhatsApp in their first language.

The smuggler then asks them which country they want to pay for their passage in. Options include Germany, the Netherlands, Kurdistan, (ie: Kurdish areas of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq) Iraq, Syria or Turkey. Once specified they are given the number of one of the smuggler’s agents in that country to organise payment.

The asylum seeker then makes an arrangement with a trusted relative or friend to hold the money until after the crossing and then waits for a phone call from a smuggler working in Calais to say: “We are ready, you can cross tonight.”

After the asylum seeker has successfully crossed, the agent on the ground makes contact with the relative to demand payment. If the relative doesn’t hand the money over to the smuggler’s agent after a successful crossing is completed the asylum seeker’s life is at risk so the money is almost always handed over. This arrangement protects both the smuggler and the asylum seeker’s financial interests.

The asylum seekers who spoke to the Guardian said they believed that home secretary Priti Patel’s plans to break the smugglers’ business model by making small boat channel crossings more difficult was doomed to failure because asylum seekers are prepared to resort to desperate measures.

“I heard yesterday that a new route has opened up from Algeria to Spain because it is difficult to cross now from Morocco to Spain. It is longer and more dangerous but asylum seekers will use this route if they don’t have another choice,” one asylum seeker said.

He believes that the £55m the Home Office is paying to the French authorities to try to stop more crossings is pointless.

“It is true that the coastline in northern France is large but there are three or four crossing points that the smugglers always use. The police know this. When I was crossing the French police were there but they looked the other way.”

A second asylum seeker said that the smugglers in the UK refer to the smugglers in Calais as “the workers”. The asylum seeker said that after being told they would be on a boat with 12 people there were 21 on it.

“I messaged the smuggler in the UK and complained. He replied, ‘Ah these bad workers, I tell them to only put 12 on the boat but they put more people on board.’”

A third asylum seeker said: “Priti Patel doesn’t understand how the smugglers at the top work. They could be living in the same neighbourhood as her. The police and government in the UK have not stopped them. The smugglers are bad but they are helping us survive after we ran for our lives. Priti Patel destroys lives and families and dreams.”

Countless asylum seeker and human rights charities have called on the government to open up more safe and legal routes for asylum seekers who are going to try to to reach the UK anyway. But the government has so far not responded to these requests.

A Home Office spokesperson said the government would not hesitate to prosecute people smugglers, and had secured more than 65 small boat-related prosecutions since the start of 2020.

“Illegal immigration is driven by serious organised criminals and people smugglers who profit from human misery. These heinous criminals put more people’s lives at risk by taking longer journeys from further down the French coastline or using increasingly unsafe boats,” the spokesperson said.

Comments are closed.