A smuggling operation that police believe illegally sent 10,000 people across the Channel over the last 18 months has been uncovered after a coordinated operation across five European countries.
In what is believed to be the biggest investigation ever launched to stop small boat crossings, hundreds of officers from the UK, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Germany staged dawn raids, resulting in dozens of arrests.
Officers arrested six men and a woman in the Docklands and Catford areas of London on Tuesday, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.
There were also “numerous searches and arrests”, coordinated by Europol and the EU’s judicial agency, Eurojust, German police said.
The gang used Germany to store boats, engines and other equipment that had been brought in through Turkey, before moving the vessels to northern France for the migrants to set off for Britain.
They were making £65,000 for every crossing, with up to 20 people crammed into each boat, according to the German press.
In the UK, a 26-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to facilitate illegal immigration, in Rushey Green, Catford, as was a 22-year-old man in St Davids Square, on the Isle of Dogs, the NCA said.
A 20-year-old woman and 18-year-old man were detained on suspicion of possessing class A drugs with intent to supply, after a quantity of what is suspected to be cocaine was found.
They remain in custody and are being questioned by NCA investigators.
Two other men were arrested for immigration offences and will now be dealt with by the immigration authorities.
The NCA said: “Officers have today joined what is believed to be the biggest ever international operation targeting criminal networks suspected of using small boats to smuggle thousands of people into the UK.”
The operation targeted organised groups taking migrants to England, according to police in the north-western German city of Osnabrück, considered a major hub for the illegal networks.
The German media outlet Der Spiegel quoted Osnabrück police as saying that the network had smuggled up to 10,000 people via the Channel in the last 12 to 18 months in a highly lucrative scheme.
Iraqi-Kurdish suspects were targeted in Osnabrück, with several warehouses and private addresses being searched.
Special forces were deployed because the suspects were believed to be armed and dangerous, Spiegel reported.
In January, German police joined France and the UK in aiming to curb the trade in small boats, reports claimed.
According to the German Press Agency dpa, about 90% of the boats and motors used by smugglers to transport migrants across the Channel came from Germany. After purchase, the boats were taken to Belgium.
The move of supply chains to Germany increased after the French authorities made it compulsory to show ID and provide a telephone number before buying items like small boats, outboard motors or life vests, it was reported.
The coordinated Europe-wide action comes amid growing tensions between London and the EU over migration since Brexit. Ties are particularly strained between the UK and France.
Since leaving the EU, the UK no longer has a migrant returns treaty with the 27-nation bloc.
The UK has repeatedly accused the French authorities of not doing enough to stop the crossings.
In February, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said Boris Johnson’s government must accept applications for asylum from migrants in France who seek to settle in the UK, adding that the British economy relies on low-paid, undocumented migrants.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, rejected the claims and argued that the “entire French government – both the interior minister and president Macron” – were “fully aware” of cooperation needed between the two countries.
Despite promises of more cooperation, the number of migrants seeking to cross the Channel from France to England surged in the first half of this year, according to the French interior ministry.
From 1 January to 13 June, there were 777 attempted crossings involving 20,132 people, up 68% on the same period last year, it said.
Patel is still planning to deport illegal migrants, including those who arrive across the Channel, to Rwanda under an agreement that has cost the UK an initial payment of £120m, plus the costs for flights, security and accommodation for up to five years.
The first flight, scheduled to take off last month, was cancelled after a last-ditch intervention by the European court of human rights (ECHR).
After the ruling, Patel said she would seek to send another flight to Rwanda as soon as possible, while asylum seekers have been granted a judicial review of the policy to be heard in the high court later this month.