Two suspected heads of a people smuggling network have been arrested following an operation by the National Crime Agency (NCA).
The two men were arrested in connection with an Organised Crime Group (OCG) which transported asylum seekers from France to Kent.
Today’s operation, which involved more than 130 officers, is the culmination of a lengthy investigation into the network, codenamed Operation Symbolry.
The suspects, aged 52 and 28, were detained on suspicion of conspiring to facilitate illegal immigration following NCA raids in Woodford Green and Bushwood, east London, this morning.
Another five people, all licenced mini-cab drivers, were also arrested on suspicion of being involved in transporting migrants to or from lorry pick-up and drop-off points.
NCA investigators also identified a safe house in Mile End, in which 11 suspected asylum seekers were detained.
The property had been converted to accomodate at least 19 people, with bunk beds filling every room. Seven people were handed to the immigration authorities to be dealt with.
“We believe the arrests today, coupled with the actions we have already taken, will end the activities of this network”
The OCG was discovered to have connections in both Europe and Asia, using a network of predominately Romanian lorries to move migrants across the Channel from France into Kent, or the other way round.
NCA Branch Operations Manager Chris Hill said: “Operation Symbolry is a significant investigation into a wide-ranging criminal network involved in people smuggling, moving migrants illegally in both directions across the border between the UK and France.
“We believe the arrests today, coupled with the actions we have already taken, will end the activities of this network.
“Organised crime groups often rely upon enablers such as complicit lorry drivers and minicab drivers to carry out their work, offering them money to help.
“What I would say to those drivers is that if they are approached, they should tell us, either by calling police on 101 or contacting the charity Crimestoppers anonymously.
“The penalties for drivers caught smuggling migrants are severe, and I would ask those tempted by the idea to consider the potential impact on their lives and livelihoods.”
Operation Symbolry has already seen seven people, including six lorry drivers, arrested and charged with people smuggling offences. Five have been convicted, after their trucks were intercepted outbound and migrants were found in the rear.
They include Romanian national Marius Halmaghe, aged 36, who was stopped on the A2 on October 1 of last year, with four migrants discovered by police. He was sentenced to 31 months in prison.
Three days later on 4 October 29-year-old Alexandru Fuiorea was arrested as part of an intelligence-led operation on the M2. 18 migrants were found hidden in the rear of his truck, which was heading towards Dover. Fuiorea was given a sentence of three years and eight months.
On 6 November 2020 Mihai-Veleriu Postolache, aged 25, and his partner Roxana Gabriela Stan, 25, were arrested by the NCA after five migrants were discovered in their HGV as it entered the port of Dover. They would later be sentenced to 33 months and 14 months respectively.
48-year-old Sebastian Gabriel Podar was arrested as part of a National Crime Agency operation at the port of Dover in the early hours of 2 December. Nine migrants were discovered in the rear of his HGV. He pleaded guilty to two counts of facilitating illegal immigration at Canterbury Crown Court today (19 May).
Turkish lorry driver Hakan Zengin, 36, was arrested on 21 March 2021 on the M25 and found with seventeen migrants in his lorry. He pleaded guilty to immigration offences on 7 May and awaits sentence.
And 38-year-old Waqas Ikram has been charged with people smuggling offences after a lorry was broken into on 30 March 2021. Four migrants were later found after it was searched by police at South Mimms services on the M25.
A further two lorry drivers had previously been dealt with by the authorities in France.
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