Europe’s refugee crisis

Raids in UK and France target cross-Channel people-smuggling rings

French police raided the ‘Vietnam City’ camp in a disused coal mine, while UK police hit an Iraqi-Kurdish smuggling network

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2018, 12:52pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2018, 12:52pm

British police have arrested 21 suspects in people-smuggling raids, while French counterparts targeted a camp for Vietnamese people in a disused coal mine southeast of Calais, in a coordinated crackdown on the criminal networks illegally bringing migrants across the Channel into the UK.

At the French camp known as Vietnam City, hundreds of trafficked young Vietnamese people have been housed over the past decade until they can be transferred to the UK.

About 350 officers were involved in the UK raids on Tuesday, which targeted a network believed to have helped smuggle hundreds of Iraqi-Kurdish migrants to Britain. Arrests were made around the country, following information gathered over the past year after numerous arrests of drivers who had smuggled migrants into the country in lorries.

The National Crime Agency, which coordinated the raids, said migrants were understood to have paid between £5,000 (US$7,000) and £10,000 to travel the last stage of a journey from the Middle East. Drivers are understood to have been recruited both in France and the UK to smuggle people across the border. Police officers also raided car washes in Durham, Cleveland and Northumbria, investigating money-laundering and people-smuggling links to workers in these businesses.

Tom Dowdall, the NCA’s deputy director, said: “The number of officers deployed today by the National Crime Agency, the police and partner agencies reflects the scale and severity of the suspected criminality. We believe we have identified and disrupted a significant network, which is suspected of smuggling hundreds of migrants into the UK. People smugglers don’t think twice about putting lives in danger, employing a range of dangerous methods as they attempt to evade border controls. It is a crime predicated on exploitation of vulnerable people and their treatment as a commodity instead of as human beings.”

Most of the people brought into the country by the network were male Iraqi Kurds, according to the NCA, but some families were also smuggled in. The raids came as part of a joint operation carried out with officers in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, focused in particular on the smuggling routes from Calais and Dunkirk to the UK.

The arrests were not linked to the upsurge in violence in Calais last week, where a dispute between Afghan and Iraqi people smugglers ended in shots being fired as migrants queued for food at a charitable distribution point in the town. About 22 people were taken to hospital, including four Eritreans aged between 16 and 18.

But the NCA operation reflects the higher priority and increased police resources devoted to stopping people-smuggling into the UK, Dowdall said, amid better awareness on both sides of the Channel of the role of people smugglers in transporting refugees and migrants to the UK.

In a parallel operation early on Tuesday morning, about 50 police officers in France raided the Vietnam City camp near Angres in northern France. It has been used for over a decade by people-traffickers as a holding point for Vietnamese nationals – many of them children – who are being smuggled to the UK to work in nail bars, restaurants or cannabis farms.

About 15 people were arrested, according to French media, some of them suspected of people-smuggling, others understood to be drivers responsible for transporting the Vietnamese nationals. Twenty-seven people without papers were found and were being interviewed by Vietnamese consular officials.

French authorities found eight unaccompanied Vietnamese children in the camp and have taken them into state care. Chloe Setter, the head of policy at Ecpat UK (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking), said: “For too long, we have had concerns about the presence of the Vietnam City camp in Angres, particularly the presence of unaccompanied children and vulnerable young adults there, many of whom we know go on to be trafficked to the UK and exploited. Authorities in both countries have turned a blind eye to this situation for an unacceptably long time.”