People smugglers using 'ever more dangerous' boats to attempt Channel crossings

  • ITV News Meridian's Sarah Saunders reports from Dover

Organised crime groups are turning to ever more dangerous and un-seaworthy boats in efforts to smuggle people across the Channel to the UK from France, the National Crime Agency has warned.

Recent months have seen a trend towards larger inflatables, sometimes up to 10 metres in length, being used.

The NCA believes many of these large grey or black unbranded vessels have little or no commercial use, and are being purposefully manufactured for people smugglers.

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

The NCA is looking at disrupting the supply of vessels to criminal groups. Credit: NCA

During one attempted crossing in July this year the flimsy plastic bottom of a boat simply gave way, plunging the occupants into the water. Fortunately they were rescued by Border Force.

And several boats intercepted in the days just before a similar vessel sank in the Channel leading to the deaths of 27 people were held together using strips of gaffer tape.

On 29 November the Agency issued an alert via Interpol to worldwide law enforcement for them to share intelligence about the supply of boats and encouraging them to ask suppliers and retailers in their jurisdictions to be on the lookout.

The occupants of this boat were plunged into the water after the floor collapsed. Credit: NCA

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."

In November the NCA 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, and then recruiting people from camps in northern France to travel in them.

18 people were arrested in the Calais, Le Havre and Paris regions of France.

This small boat was held together by tape at the front and back. Credit: NCA

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."

The NCA’s Martin Grace added: “I would also re-iterate our appeal from earlier in the year to those involved in the maritime industry, both here in the UK and on the Continent."

He 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."

Potentially suspicious activity might include:

  • Cash being used in large sums to make payment

  • Unusual combination of boats and equipment in one transaction

  • Enquiries 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