Smuggling operation that sent thousands across Channel illegally in small boats has been broken up in a major Europe wide clampdown.
The suspected ringleader of a network that smuggled as many as 10,000 people on small boats across the English Channel to Britain has been arrested along with 38 others in a vast police operation across Europe.
In addition to the arrests, authorities said on Wednesday that police found 135 boats in places including a German farmhouse and Dutch warehouses, more than 1,000 life jackets, outboard engines, packs of paddles and cash used for the smuggling.
“We believe it is the largest operation of its type against this threat,” Matt Rivers of the UK National Crime Agency told a news conference on Wednesday.
"I hope it sends a message."
Five countries and the EU's police and justice agencies coordinated on the operation, which led to 18 arrests in Germany, nine in France, six in Britain and six in the Netherlands. The operation is ongoing.
The suspected ringleader is a 26-year-old Iranian man, Rivers said. No other details were immediately released.
Rivers predicted a drop in the number of Channel crossings as a result, even though years of increasingly tough measures by British and French police have done little to deter people determined to attempt the risky journey to get to the UK.
More than 28,000 people fleeing conflict or crushing poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq or elsewhere reached Britain by way of the Channel last year, many in dinghies and other fragile craft traversing one of the world's biggest shipping lanes. That was up from 8,500 in 2020.
Dozens have died while attempting the crossing, including 27 people from a packed boat that capsized in November. The network dismantled in this week's police operation is believed to be unconnected to the one behind the November sinking, officials said.
Smugglers charge between $2,500 and $10,000 per person to help people cross into Britain, in a business that generated an estimated $60 million in revenue last year, according to Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, deputy executive director of European police agency Europol.
“This deadly business is highly profitable,” he said.
The ringleader arrested in London is accused of organising a network that stretched from Türkiye across to the UK. He is now facing possible extradition to Belgium.
Christian Bagung, prosecutor from the German city of Osnabruek, called the operation a “major step forward in fighting smuggler gangs who aim at gaining profits from the needs of people."
Migrants have long used northern France as a launching point to reach Britain, a destination favoured by many for reasons of language or family ties, or because they are told it's easier to get asylum or find work without immigration papers in Britain than on the continent.