THEY have the sophistication and brutality of the world's biggest drug cartels, raking in millions as they secretly ship their goods to the UK in the backs of lorries.
But the gangs aren't shifting boxes of white powder – they're smuggling PEOPLE, in a deadly £5.5 billion trade that has seen a soaring number of migrants illegally sneaked into Britain.
Today, the trade's devastating human cost was revealed, after 39 suspected migrants including a teenager were found dead inside a chiller lorry in Essex, in temperatures as low as -25.
Now, Sun Online has spoken exclusively to experts, former cops and transport bosses to uncover the horrifying extent of people smuggling – and why it's bigger than ever.
In a series of shocking claims, they tell us:
- Gangs are shooting at British lorries abroad to get migrants inside them
- They are using new routes to the UK with "lax security"
- They like lorries because they can "herd people on them like cattle"
- People smuggling is soaring as families flee conflict, poverty and instability
- Gangs are increasingly ruthless, "killing off" migrants who are slowing down groups
- Britain needs a more joined-up approach with other nations
58 migrants found suffocated to death
People smuggling has long been a problem in the UK. In 2000, 58 Chinese illegal immigrants were found suffocated to death in a truck at Dover port in Kent.
But in recent years, as families flee war, poverty and instability in their home countries and seek safety in the "affluent" UK, the situation is dangerously escalating.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) reported that the number of migrants being smuggled into the UK in containers and lorries has risen in the last year.
In May, it said there had been “increasing use of higher risk methods of clandestine entry” to Britain by organised immigration crime gangs who move people across borders illegally.
"The people smuggling industry is worth at least $7 billion (£5.45 billion) a year and could be far higher," says Ilias Chatzis, the UN's Chief of Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section.
Promise of a "dream" life for £10k
For the vile gangs behind the trade, it's a lucrative money-maker – just like drugs. They sell the promise of a "dream" new life to migrants – if they survive the trip – for up to £10,000 each.
Yet immigration lawyer Harjap Bhangal says: "There’s more money made out of people smuggling than drug smuggling, but the amount of convictions for people smuggling are nowhere near drugs. It’s ignored."
One "untouchable" gang managed to rake in a fortune from their premium rate "door-to-door service" – delivering migrants to selected UK addresses – before they were caught and jailed this year.
"If police catch you they don't send you back"
And in January, an Afghan trafficker boasted of getting 300 migrants across the Channel, claiming he helped set up speedboat crossings to this country for £6,000 per person.
He told The Sun in Calais, France: "If police catch you, they never send you back."
In many cases, the kingpins themselves are safely in the shadows, far away from Britain. They pocket the cash, then send migrants – sometimes in groups of 40 or 50 – on their way, packed tightly in the dregs of vehicles.
"It's all a numbers game. Will a drug dealer smuggle 10 kilos if he can smuggle 100? Of course not. It's the same with people traffickers," former Scotland Yard detective Peter Bleksley tells us.
He adds: "We so often see the low level players captured – steering the boats and driving the trucks – but do we see the brains behind it all stand up in court?
"No you don't, because they're often nowhere near the UK."
It's a sentiment that Harjap echoes: "There’s no deterrent. It’s not as if they're locked up for 30 years."
Gangs 'smuggling migrants onto ferries in vans'
Haulier boss John Vincent says gangs are increasingly based inland, to avoid being seen with migrants.
His own firm, Penfro Peche, has been targeted by people smugglers, with eight illegal immigrants found hiding among fish boxes on one lorry in Warwickshire just a couple of months ago.
"The only place they could have been smuggled on was on the ferry [from France]," he says.
"The lorry was inspected before going on the ferry."
One theory among transport bosses is that gangs are cramming families into vans to get them on to ferries because these vehicles undergo fewer security checks than lorries.
Once on the ferry, the migrants can then be smuggled on to bigger vehicles.
"They're looking for new ways [to smuggle] all the time," John says.
Kidnappings and killed en route – an immigrant's journey:
Immigration lawyer Harjap Bhangal has worked with many who have arrived in Britain. He describes a typical, perilous journey:
"They go through jungles, forests and they’re kept in wooden huts. There are no toilet facilities and a lot of them are victims of disease.
"A lot of people don’t know where they’re going – you’re not ordering at a restaurant, you’re at the mercy of the gangs.
"The journey is often funded by loans. If the gangs don’t get the payment, they might hold your family back home hostage or kidnap them. It happens a lot with Chinese migrants.
"Migrants can’t make a peep. They’re locked up in darkness. All they know is they’re on the move – until they stop moving.
"The gangs are ruthless. If someone is slowing down the group the smugglers will kill them. A lot of people never make the journey. "
Smugglers targeting "lax security" ports
Richard Burnett, chief executive of the UK-based Road Haulage Association, says gangs are increasingly shunning major ferry ports like Calais for new routes with "lax" security.
"Calais has special features like heartbeat monitors, CO2 monitors and sniffer dogs that would capture migrants on the back of a lorry's trailer," he says.
Instead, he adds, gangs might go via the likes of Cherbourg or Roscoff.
Some are also allegedly paying off corrupt border officers.
Harjap says: "There’s not any suggestion that the UK Border Force is in on it, but gangs have so much power that they can buy off security guards in European ports."
Gangs' "sophisticated" tactics
For lorry drivers themselves, the risk of migrant smuggling is very real.
They must be careful where they park, carry out thorough checks and can't take long rest breaks – where they sleep in their cabs – in areas close to the Channel port.
They can be fined £2,000 for each migrant found on their vehicle.
"The migrant gangs, they're getting really sophisticated," says Richard.
"At night when vehicles are parked up they'll unbolt the hinges on the trailer, get the migrants on then bolt them back up so the driver can't tell. Or they'll drill a hole through the roof."
A series of tragedies involving migrants or suspected migrants have taken place across the UK and Europe in recent times, including:
June 2000 – The bodies of 58 Chinese illegal immigrants are found in the back of a truck at the port of Dover. Two people survive. A Dutch truck driver was later jailed for 14 years for their manslaughter after he reportedly closed the only air vent and they suffocated to death.
February 2004 – At least 21 Chinese workers drown off the coast of Lancashire when they are trapped by the incoming tide after picking cockles. A man, originally from China, was later found guilty of manslaughter. He and his Chinese girlfriend and cousin were also convicted of helping those who died to break immigration laws.
August 2015 – Four children, including a baby girl, are among 71 migrants found dead in a truck on an Austrian highway. They were later discovered to have come from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Three years later, four people smugglers were jailed for 25 years for their deaths.
And the violence is increasing – with some smugglers now using guns.
Recently, one of John's drivers was sleeping in a service area in northern France in the middle of the night when he heard "African voices" and gunshots were fired at his lorry.
Fortunately, the gang drove away in a van after failing to get into the vehicle.
"We've given advice to just back down if drivers see any violence whatsoever," says John.
Woman hidden in van engine
But it's not just lorries that are being used for people smuggling – in 2017, a driver was jailed for three years after he tried to sneak an Albanian woman into Britain inside his van engine.
Border force bosses at the time described it as a "particularly elaborate concealment".
And even Brits desperate for cash have been known to help smuggle in people for £500 a time.
Yet as more and more migrants are smuggled into the UK, what is the answer?
Former cop and international security expert Henry Bolton OBE says Britain needs a cross-agency policy that "unifies efforts" in managing the UK's borders – something it currently lacks.
"We have got an adhoc, amateurish approach compared to many other countries," he says.
Illias adds: "The response to people smuggling lacks cohesion between different countries. Just building walls and closing roads doesn’t solve problems.
"The crime needs international cooperation and proper criminalisation, which means sharing intelligence and thorough investigations."
'A truly shocking incident'
The National Crime Agency (NCA) and Home Secretary Priti Patel have released statements after 39 bodies were found in a lorry in Essex.
A NCA spokesman told Sun Online: "We are aware of this tragic incident which is now the subject of a murder investigation being led by Essex Police and we have deployed NCA officers to assist."
Ms Patel described the incident as "truly shocking", and added: "This could be wider than the UK, wider than Europe, that is obviously now a matter for the police and their investigation."
The vehicle's driver, named as 25-year-old Mo Robinson from Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, is being held by Essex police on suspicion of murder.
Often, migrants who make it to Britain "disappear into the environment never to be seen again". But even if they're detected, they can stay – providing they've passed through Europe to get here.
Yet while they can claim asylum, many others don't survive the initial journey.
"The gangs are the ones we need to stop," says Harjap.
"They’re selling a dream to people but often all they get is death at the end of it."
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