Arrest of 'Ilford kingpin' sparked ‘biggest ever' Channel crossings crack down

A group of people thought to be migrants are rescued off the coast of Folkestone, Kent

A group of people thought to be migrants are rescued off the coast of Folkestone, Kent. Dozens of arrests have been made in what police believe is the biggest international operation to crack down on criminal gangs suspected of people-smuggling across the Channel - Credit: PA

The arrest of an alleged people-smuggling "kingpin" from Ilford is thought to have sparked the "biggest" international crack down on a criminal gang reportedly tied to thousands of Channel crossings.

A slew of raids took place yesterday - Tuesday, July 5 - in the UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands as part of a joint operation co-ordinated by Europol with Eurojust, the European Union’s criminal justice co-operation agency.

Operation Punjum, led by the National Crime Agency (NCA) in the UK, was carried out alongside Operation Thoren in Europe.

The aim of both operations was to target an organised crime gang suspected of smuggling up to 10,000 people across the Channel in the last 12 to 18 months.

Intelligence for the operation was gathered after Ilford man Hewa Rahimpur was arrested in Manor Park in May.

Rahimpur, 29, is allegedly a leading figure in a network organising human trafficking via small boats.

He is facing extradition proceedings to send him to Belgium.

At a briefing, the NCA's director of threat leadership, Chris Farrimond, said: “It was actually our intelligence which started this all off and which led to the culmination.

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“Many of those arrested overseas have been targeted as a result of evidence that we provided into the taskforce.”

He said the raids were believed to be the “biggest ever international operation targeting criminal networks suspected of using small boats to smuggle thousands of people into the UK”.

A 22-year-old man has since been arrested in St David's Square on the Isle of Dogs, along with a 26-year-old man of Rushey Green, Catford.

Both men have been detained on suspicion of conspiring to facilitate illegal immigration, and remain in custody as NCA investigators continue their questioning.

Of four other arrests made, two were “believed to be" illegal migrants and have been handed over to immigration authorities, while two others were detained on drug offences.

There were more than 40 arrests across all the countries involved; several hundred life jackets and 50 small boats were found at one location alone.

The NCA said all of the nations had been working together as part of a long-running taskforce to tackle people smuggling and Channel crossings.

Asked how much the gang was believed to be charging migrants after lining up boats, engines and life jackets for them, Mr Farrimond said a “straight trip across the Channel” was estimated to cost between 2,500 and 3,500 euros.

But he explained that most people also ask for help to travel across Europe as well, incurring further costs.

While this operation alone “will not stop the flow of migrants to the UK”, Mr Farrimond believes the scale of the work will “absolutely” have an impact.

“It will take some time for this group, or whichever group succeeds it, to recover. Now we’re not going to stop at this point," he added.

“Ideally we’d like to stop the supply of small boats much earlier on so that they really have difficulty getting their hands on them.

“And we’d also like to attack the money flows in a lot more detail than we do right now. So there’s plenty more to do."