Traffickers using dangerous boats for Channel crossings, warns the National Crime Agency

Recent months have seen an increase in the use of larger inflatables, some up to 11 metres long

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Organised criminal gangs, involved in cross-Channel people smuggling, are turning to increasingly dangerous and un-seaworthy boats which are being purpose built for them, the National Crime Agency has warned.

Recent months have seen a trend towards the use of larger inflatables, some up to 11 metres long.

The NCA believes many of these large grey or black unbranded boats have little or no commercial use, and are being purposefully manufactured for organised crime groups.

Other boats are also being adapted or improvised using sub-standard materials in attempts to increase capacity and improve rigidity.

The Agency said that during one attempted crossing in July this year, the flimsy plastic bottom of a boat gave way, plunging those onboard into the water.

They were rescued a short time later by officers onboard a Border Force vessel.

Several other boats intercepted in the days before a similar vessel sank in the Channel with the loss 27 lives last month, were held together using strips of gaffer tape.

The NCA has now issued a worldwide alert via Interpol, asking law enforcement agencies to share intelligence about the supply of boats and encouraging them to ask suppliers and retailers in their jurisdictions to be on the lookout.

Martin Grace, Head of Organised Immigration Crime operations for the NCA, said:“It is clear to us that with some of the boats being used there is little or no genuine commercial use for them.“They are likely being manufactured and sold online for the sole purpose of being used for people smuggling, and this is now something we are focusing on.”

The NCA said it believes that a high percentage of attempted Channel crossings are still facilitated by organised criminal networks of varying sophistication.In November, the Agency worked with French police on an operation which dismantled an organised crime group involved in supplying boats able to carry between 40 and 60 people.The criminals gangs have also been actively involved in recruiting people from migrant camps in northern France to travel in the boats.

18 people were arrested in the Calais, Le Havre and Paris regions of France in recent weeks.Dan O’Mahoney, Home Office Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, said:“The recent tragedy in the Channel is a devastating reminder of the dangers of Channel crossings, choreographed by organised crime groups who are profiteering from these deadly and unnecessary Channel crossings.

“We work closely with our European and international partners and police, hand-in-glove, day in, day out to arrest, investigate and prosecute organised criminals, preventing numerous departures and saving lives.“But this is a complicated issue and we are determined to do all we can to work with the NCA to tackle criminal gangs and prevent further loss of life.” 

The NCA’s Martin Grace added:“While the events of last month in which at least 27 people died were an absolute tragedy, unfortunately it was not a surprise when you consider the types of boats we have seen people being put in.

Frankly, they are death traps.“If you add that to the increasing crowding we are seeing on these vessels, and the poor weather and colder seas of winter, it all adds to a greatly increased risk.”

The National Crime Agency is appealing to those involved in the maritime industry to be on alert and report anything suspicious around the purchase of the kinds of items that can be used to manufacture small boats.The NCA said potentially suspicious activity could include:

  • Cash being used in large sums to make payment;
  • An unusual combination of boats and equipment in one transaction;
  • Enquiries about bulk purchase of equipment like life jackets;
  • Repeat purchasing of boats and/or equipment from the same retailer;
  • Lack of concern about the condition of the boat or equipment being purchased, or an indication that it may not be for the buyers’ use;
  • Online buyers travelling to collect the boat and/or avoiding providing a fixed delivery address.

UK and French authorities are bracing for the possibility of another surge in small boat activity in the next few days, as weather conditions in the Channel improve a little.

The NCA alone has around 50 ongoing investigations linked to the top tiers of organised immigration crime, and since the start of 2021 has been involved in more than 140 arrests.