Five members of an organised crime group have been found guilty of smuggling migrants, including children, into the UK in the back of a refrigerated lorry through Portsmouth port.
The gang’s activities were uncovered following a four-year investigation by the National Crime Agency, with a surveillance operation leading to their arrests.
On 11 March 2019, NCA officers watched as members of the group drove a people carrier to rendezvous with a lorry driven by Romanian national Marinel Danut Palage, aged 31, at an industrial estate in Runcton, West Sussex.
The truck had arrived in Portsmouth on a ferry from Caen in northern France the previous evening, and was carrying a legitimate load of spinach from Spain.
But it was also carrying at least three people who had been brought to the UK illegally.
After meeting up with the lorry the people carrier drove away, later stopping in a layby on the A27, where migrants were transferred into two further cars. One of the cars was stopped by the NCA where two Iraqi nationals - a sister and brother aged 18 and 13 - were in the passenger seats.
Palage attempted to run off as officers approached his lorry, but he was detained and arrested.
During a search of the lorry cab, plastic bags containing £34,500 cash were found.
Bundles of euros and sterling to the value of around £7,000 were found hidden behind a tachograph panel.
Later that morning the people carrier, a VW Touran, was stopped at Liphook services on the A3.
In the driver’s seat was Goran Jalal, 37, from Bradford, who is the alleged ringleader of the network and was in contact with Palage to arrange the meet-up. He is now wanted by the NCA having absconded following his arrest.
In the passenger seat was gang member Kamaran Kader, 44, also from Bradford.
NCA investigators pieced together the conspiracy following the seizure of phones, identifying other members of the group and at least two other suspected people smuggling events into Portsmouth in January and March 2019.
Phone evidence showed that Pshtewan Ghafour, aged 37 and from Middlesbrough, had travelled down to Portsmouth with Jalal, Kader on the same nights that Palage arrived in his lorry on a ferry from France.
Analysis of the cash seized from Palage’s lorry found Ghafour and Kader’s fingerprints on the bags and envelopes containing the money.
NCA Branch Commander Richard Harrison said: "This people smuggling group were content to put vulnerable migrants, including children, in the back of refrigerated lorries for hours on end during dangerous Channel crossings.
“It is clear from the evidence we found that their sole reason was for profit, without any regard to the migrants safety."
The gang will be sentenced in April.