A smuggling operation that police say has illegally sent 10,000 people across the Channel over the past 18 months has been uncovered after a coordinated operation in five European countries.
In what is considered the largest investigation ever launched to stop small boats crossing, hundreds of officers from the UK, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Germany carried out morning attacks, resulting in dozens of arrests.
Officers arrested six men and a woman on Tuesday in the Docklands and Catford areas of London, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.
There were also “numerous searches and arrests” coordinated by Europol and the EU’s judicial body, Eurojust, German police said.
The gang used Germany to store boats, motorbikes and other equipment brought in via Turkey before moving the ships to northern France to allow the migrants to leave for Britain.
They made £65,000 for each 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 conspiracy to facilitate illegal immigration, in Rushey Green, Catford, as well as 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 arrested on suspicion of possessing Class A drugs with intent to supply them after an amount of suspected cocaine was found.
They are still in custody and are being questioned by NCA investigators.
Two other men were arrested for immigration offenses and will now be dealt with by immigration authorities.
The NCA said: “Agents today joined what is believed to be the largest international operation ever targeting criminal networks suspected of using small boats to smuggle thousands of people into the UK.”
The operation targeted organized groups bringing migrants to England, according to police in the northwestern German city of Osnabrück, which is believed to be a major hub for the illegal networks.
German media outlet Der Spiegel quoted Osnabrück police as saying the network had smuggled up to 10,000 people across the Channel in the past 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 armed and dangerous, Spiegel reported.
In January, German police joined France and the UK to curb the trade in small boats, reports say.
According to the German news agency dpa, about 90% of the boats and motorbikes used by smugglers to transport migrants across the Channel came from Germany. After purchase, the boats were brought to Belgium.
The relocation of supply chains to Germany increased after French authorities required the presentation of ID and a telephone number before purchasing items such as small boats, outboard motors or life jackets, it was reported.
The concerted European action comes amid mounting tensions between London and the EU over migration since Brexit. Relations are particularly tense between the UK and France.
Since it left the EU, the UK no longer has a return treaty for migrants with the 27-nation bloc.
The UK has repeatedly accused French authorities of not doing enough to stop the crossings.
In February, French President Emmanuel Macron said Boris Johnson’s government must accept asylum applications from migrants in France who want to settle in the UK, adding that the UK’s economy relies on low-paid undocumented migrants.
Interior Minister Priti Patel rejected the claims, arguing that the “entire French government — both the Interior Minister and President Macron” — was “fully aware” of the cooperation needed between the two countries.
Despite promises of increased cooperation, the number of migrants seeking to cross the Channel from France to England rose in the first half of this year, the French interior ministry said.
From January 1 to June 13, there were 777 crossing attempts involving 20,132 people, a 68% increase over the same period last year.
Patel still plans to deport illegal migrants, including those arriving across the Channel, to Rwanda under an agreement that has cost the UK an initial payment of £120 million, plus the cost of flights, security and accommodation for up to five years.
The first flight, due to depart last month, was canceled after a last-ditch intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
Following the ruling, Patel said she would try to resend another flight to Rwanda as soon as possible, while asylum seekers have faced a judicial review of the policy to be heard by the Supreme Court later this month.