European police have busted a human smuggling ring said to be part of a network transporting thousands of migrants in life-threatening conditions across the Channel to Britain.
Law officers, working together with Europe's policing and judicial agencies Europol and Eurojust, arrested 12 suspected smugglers over the last two days, British interior minster Priti Patel and the Hague-based Eurojust said in statements on Wednesday.
"Yesterday, 12 people were arrested in France, the Netherlands and the UK as part of a joint operation targeting a gang engaged in smuggling people across the Channel in small boats," Patel said.
Police also seized 12 vehicles, 10 rubber boats and engines, 152 life jackets, a caravan, a boat trailer, jewellery, about 48,000 euros ($56,000) in cash, documents and mobile devices, Eurojust added.
Those arrested are suspected of being part of a mainly Iranian smuggling gang based in France, the Netherlands and Britain, organising their activities through their ties in the various countries and social media.
"The network is believed to have made huge profits from smuggling migrants in small boats from the north coasts of France to Britain," charging an average of 3,000 euros per crossing, Eurojust said.
"Transporting migrants in overloaded boats, often in very difficult weather conditions on one of the busiest commercial shipping lanes in the world, endangered the lives of both the migrants and also the law enforcement officers conducting sea rescue operations," it said.
Eurojust said illegal migrant-smuggling activity has "increased exponentially" in recent months with over 4,600 irregular migrants detected since 2018 on British shores.
Reduced numbers of lorries crossing the Channel due to the coronavirus epidemic had forced more migrants onto small and dangerous boats, Matthew Long, deputy director of Britain's National Crime Agency (NCA), said in a briefing.
"With an overloaded vessel and the wave height... quite often these vessels are filling with water and baling out," added NCA colleague Steven Dann.
"Within that is vomit and sometimes fuel, we've had people whose skin has been burnt by the fuel," he added.
"When you see these migrants coming, it's upsetting. You see women and children coming off these boats shivering, hypothermic."
Organised crime gangs were also using the crossings to smuggle firearms, they added.
However, some of the worst incidents did not involve organised crime networks, but rather those desperately trying to make their own way across the treacherous waters.
"We've had a paddling pool you buy at (British high street store) Argos," Dann said of one of the attempted crossings.
The joint operation comes as French police on Tuesday dismantled a camp of about 800 migrants in the port city of Calais.
"The French at the moment are intercepting over 50 percent of events taking place, they're making every effort to prevent these crossings," said Dann.
Calais continues to attract migrants from the Middle East and Africa who set up makeshift camps along France's northern coast from where they hope to make the passage to Britain.
Since January 1, French authorities have intercepted at least 1,317 migrants as they tried to reach the UK, some by swimming across the busy waterway.
In August, a Sudanese teenager drowned while trying to reach Britain with a friend in an inflatable boat.