An international police operation has smashed a network smuggling Albanians into Britain.
The operation unearthed more than 50 people making millions by sneaking migrants across 17 countries to reach the UK, US and Canada.
Thirty-nine suspects operating in ten countries including Britain are accused of smuggling around 1,500 illegal migrants who each paid up to £20,000 to escape Albania. Another 12 remain on the run.
Four police officers on Albanian border crossings were among those arrested on suspicion of helping the gangs.
Investigators also seized automatic guns, ammunition, more than £25,000 in cash, a cache of forged passports and other identity papers, as well as seals and stamps, colour laser printers and 28 computers used to make the false documents.
Initially the route to the UK went through Italy and France, but after crackdowns by police in these countries they started to take a circuitous route through Montenegro, Serbia, Germany and northern Spain, from where they would be helped on to ships heading to the south coast
Half of the migrants smuggled by the criminal network – around 750 – ended up in Britain, with henchmen here helping to arrange each trafficking operation.
Around nine in ten of the Albanians trafficked into the UK are believed to have boarded ferries using fake passports and identity cards created by the gangs. Most of the forged papers were Italian, while some were French and Spanish.
Initially the route to the UK went through Italy and France, but after crackdowns by police in these countries they started to take a circuitous route through Montenegro, Serbia, Germany and northern Spain, from where they would be helped on to ships heading to the south coast.
The police operation was launched after the Daily Mail revealed last year the shocking scale of Albanian illegal immigration to the UK, with many young migrants openly taking ‘stowaway selfies’ of themselves laughing and joking while hiding in British-bound lorries.
An international police operation has smashed a network smuggling Albanians into Britain. Above, police escort a suspect in Santander, northern Spain
The National Crime Agency has warned that Albanian crime groups have established a ‘high-profile influence’ within UK organised crime. They are behind much of the supply of cocaine around the country and are also involved in trafficking and prostitution.
Albanians now make up the third largest foreign group jailed in England and Wales, behind Irish and Polish criminals – at a cost of around £53million to the taxpayer.
The suburban drug lords and their cannabis factories
Nine Albanians admitted drugs offences this month after police seized cannabis worth £750,000 in raids on farms hidden in suburban homes.
Following an eight-month covert investigation, 50 officers swooped on six drugs dens in Gloucester and Cheltenham.
The raids were part of a major operation to tackle Albanian drug gangs, human trafficking and modern-day slavery in Gloucestershire. In one terrace property alone, police uncovered rooms packed with cannabis plants worth £100,000.
Another of the cannabis factories in last October’s raid was located directly opposite a primary school, police said.
Nine men pleaded guilty to cannabis production. A tenth who denies any involvement is due to go on trial at Bristol Crown Court next month.
There were 726 offenders from the Balkan state behind bars last year – almost triple the 267 in 2013, Ministry of Justice figures revealed this week.
Albanian authorities described the raids, carried out last weekend, as a ‘mega operation’ which also involved officials from the US Department of State, the Canada Border Services Agency, Europol, Interpol and police in Kosovo, Spain, France and Italy.
The operation was codenamed ‘One If By Land’, from a secret signal used during the American Revolution.
Albanian national police chief Ardi Veliu said seven criminal groups were involved in the human trafficking ring, operating in Albania, Bulgaria, Spain, France, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Britain, Ireland and the US.
‘Every person paid at least £7,000 to get to the United Kingdom and from £17,000 to £20,000 to reach the US and Canada,’ he said.
Because Albania is an EU applicant state, nationals can travel freely within the EU without showing a passport as far as northern Spain or Calais, but still need visas for Britain and North America.
Albanians last year made up the second-highest number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Britain, with more applicants than from war-ravaged Syria.
MPs in the country have warned that high charges for human traffickers meant migrants were often forced to take jobs with ruthless Albanian crime gangs operating in the UK to pay their huge debts.
The NCA says Albanian gangs have ‘considerable control’ of the UK drugs market.
Kathryn Holloway, the Bedfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner, said their ‘sheer brutality’ made them ‘the most ruthless the UK has seen’.
In a drive to convince the EU to start accession negotiations this June, Albania has stepped up its fight against crime. It has recently seized 1,350lb of cocaine and busted a large cannabis smuggling group. Many have been convicted of murder, drug dealing, sex offences, money laundering and people-smuggling.
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