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People smuggling gangs target UK maritime industry to fuel rise in asylum seeker crossings

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Callous people smuggling gangs are targeting the UK maritime industry as demand for small boats soars.

Criminals sent more than 8,000 asylum seekers on perilous trips across the Channel in flimsy dinghies last year, a combination of lockdown measures and calm weather fuelling the rise.

Boats seized by the authorities Picture: NCA
Boats seized by the authorities Picture: NCA

By the end of last month the number was more than double that recorded in the same period last year and the National Crime Agency fears the summer months will be accompanied by another increase.

Now the NCA is warning sailing suppliers of thefts and urging them to keep watch for unusual consumer behaviour, including bulk buying and repeat custom.

Organised crime groups are known to target legitimate sellers of vessels and equipment such as outboard motors and life jackets, both in person and online.

Owners are also being asked to pay particular attention to security guidelines, ensuring vessels and equipment are secured accordingly, following a number of thefts.

The NCA also urged them to report any strange activity, behaviour or thefts promptly reported, particularly of vessels or engines.

NCA head of organised immigration crime operations, Miles Bonfield, said: “Today we are directly appealing to those within the marine and maritime industries to help us stop those involved in organised people smuggling.

“Crossing the channel in vessels like these is extremely dangerous and life threatening – but the organised crime groups involved don’t care about safety or welfare, they just see migrants as a commodity to be exploited.

“We’re already working closely with a range of partners in the UK and on the continent to target the supply of these vessels, but we are now asking that the UK industry helps us and report any suspicions they may have.”

Boats seized by the authorities Picture: NCA
Boats seized by the authorities Picture: NCA

The NCA’s examples of suspicious activity include:

  • Cash being used in large sums to make payment
  • Unusual combination of boats and equipment in one transaction
  • Inquiries about bulk purchase of equipment i.e. 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
  • Customers wanting to complete their transaction and collection as quickly as possible
  • Online buyers travelling to collect the boat and/or avoiding providing a fixed delivery address
Asylum seekers arrive at Dover. Picture: Chris Johnson
Asylum seekers arrive at Dover. Picture: Chris Johnson

Lesley Robinson, CEO of British Marine, the trade association for the UK leisure, superyacht and small commercial marine industry, said: “We are pleased to be working with the NCA to help raise awareness of this concerning issue and to reduce criminal activity. The NCA plays a key role in supporting the security and safety of the marine industry, and today’s warning about organised crime linked to small boats in particular is ultimately a safety issue and one that British Marine and our members take very seriously.

“The UK leisure marine industry must always play its part and I am confident that British Marine members will take the lead in this area and share the warning and ‘red flags’ to be mindful of within their businesses.”

Mr Bonfield added: “Essentially we want people to follow their gut feeling. They know their industry and their customers well. If they sense something isn’t quite right or seems unusual, then please report it to the charity Crimestoppers, either by phone on 0800 555111 or online. You will remain anonymous.”

Those contacting Crimestoppers with information should quote the alert reference ‘0647-OIC’.

Anyone who lives or works around our coastline, marinas, ports or waterways and witnesses something they believe to be suspicious can always call the police on 101, quoting Project KRAKEN, or visit gov.uk/report-border-crime.

To get the latest updates in ongoing cases, police appeals and criminals put behind bars, click here

Crime Dover Kent Ed McConnell

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