Illegal migrants are being offered the chance to cross the Channel for as little as £500 a head by people smuggling gangs, says the National Crime Agency (NCA).
Steve Reynolds, the NCA’s head of operations for organised immigration crime, told The Daily Telegraph that the range of prices from “deluxe” options to basic second hand inflatable dinghies had increased amid growing competition and demand for deals from migrants to cross the Channel.
He warned that it was a major worry for the NCA that the increased scale of the trade could become an established mode for crossing the Channel after flourishing during Covid-19 restrictions as other routes to the UK like train, ferry and planes were closed down.
“What is worrying is that as it has established itself as a methodology, then, like a lot of other things post-Covid, it may not go back to what it was. It’s firmly established in the minds of smugglers as a way of getting across,” Mr Reynolds told The Daily Telegraph in an interview.
Yesterday the Home Office confirmed at least 120 migrants made it to the UK on Tuesday. One of the boats was carrying 36 people who said they were from Iraq, Iran and Kuwait and was spotted by Border Force at around 11am.
Mr Reynolds said generally prices were about £3,000 a head but competition for migrants had seen the range widen to £500 for a “second-hand inflatable dinghy” to £5,000 for a “deluxe” guarantee to secure passage with minimal risk in larger motorised boats with multiple attempts.
“There’s a broader range of pricing now than there was. It used to be commonly figures of £2,000 to £4,000 but now you have higher and lower,” said Mr Reynolds.
“It’s a diversity which is an indication of more people relying on this method of entry because other ways are more limited and they find it works for them.”
He said people smuggling via the Channel route was not a crime led by a “Mr Big” mafia-style organised crime group but remained “fairly low sophistication” where a criminal who had a phone, some boats and a list of migrants could enter the illegal trade.
“There are more people getting into it. The more migrants, the more people will present themselves as facilitators,” he said.
“There are more migrants and more facilitators but there are also more people doing it on their own. It’s a low-entry crime. You need a phone, a supply of boats and a supply of migrants and that’s it.”
Payment systems had also evolved and grown with migrants using informal money transfer systems modelled on Hawala where they could organise fees to be paid to a smuggler’s contacts in their own country.
There were also DIY-style migrants who were using kayaks - with often as many as one attempt a day - or small boats without even an engine, sometimes with oars made out of pieces of wood scavenged from the shoreline, said Mr Reynolds.
He said it was lucky there had not been more deaths reported. “If you go out into the Channel without an engine, you are running an extreme risk of being taken away by the wind and tide. That’s a great concern,” he added.
The number of migrants to have crossed the Channel this year is already nearly double the 1,892 for the whole of last year, with last week seeing a record 202 on a single day.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, is seeking to negotiate a new agreement with the French whereby they will take back migrants at sea wherever they are found in the Channel.