A man from Eyeworth has been jailed for eight years for his part in a smuggling ring transporting people across the Channel.
Thomas Mason, 36, of High Street, Eyeworth, was one of the pilots of the boats used to smuggle people in a speedboat via the Kent coast.
He is one of six members of an organised crime group who were sentenced on Wednesday to more than 27 years in prison.
On 3 August 2018, officers from the Eastern Region Special Operations Unit (ERSOU), supported by Border Force, the National Crime Agency, and Kent Police, made a number of arrests after a rigid hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) carrying migrants arrived at Deal in Kent.
Four Vietnamese nationals were seen leaving the boat, having been smuggled over from France, and walking to a waiting vehicle, at which point they were stopped by police.
As a result of the stop, which came about following surveillance work by ERSOU and a Border Force coastal patrol vessel (CPV), and subsequent investigation, seven people were arrested and charged with conspiracy to facilitate unlawful immigration.
Six of the seven were sentenced at St Albans Crown Court on Wednesday to a total of 27 years and seven months.
During a trial of three of the offenders, which concluded on 22 February, the court heard how the group attempted to facilitate the illegal entry of migrants, predominantly those from Vietnam, from France and Belgium to the UK on a number of occasions between April and August 2018.
One of the migrants who was detained following the interception on 3 August, gave evidence during the trial. He stated that he was promised free accommodation and food in exchange for labour, but did not know what country he was in when he left France or where he was going to, and had to cling onto a strap while in the boat to prevent himself from falling in.
Nazmi Velia, 32, of Park Street Lane, St Albans, and Hoa Thi Nguyen, 49, of Bisterne Avenue, Walthamstow, London, were the ring leaders of the group.
Velia was jailed for five years and four months, while Nguyen received eight years in prison.
Egert Kajaci, 35, of Turn Drive, Oxford, and Mason, were the transporters.
Kajaci’s sentencing was deferred until 18 March.
Erald Gapi, 27, of Abinger Grove, Deptford, Chi Tan Huynh, 41, of Wharf Road, London, and Wayne Lee, 47, of Grasmere Close, Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire, also played significant roles within the group.
They were jailed for one year and nine months, two and a half years, and two years respectively.
It’s believed the group were facilitating the entry of migrants into the country so that they could then exploit them for labour.
During the sentencing, the Judge commented on how this was a “professional well organised conspiracy, purely motivated by financial gain” and said the group showed a “callous disregard for safety”.
Detective Inspector Trevor Davidson, who led the investigation for ERSOU, said: “This was a complex investigation which came about following intelligence that an organised crime group were using a speedboat to bring migrants from Europe to England. We set up a surveillance operation and witnessed a number of failed attempts by the group to bring people across, before officers caught them landing in Walmer in August with four migrants.
“Not only was the operation highly illegal, the group were putting the lives of the migrants at risk, forcing them to travel without lifejackets in a tiny boat across the Channel at night, for their own financial gain.”
Gordon Scarratt, Head of Border Force Maritime, said: “Since these arrests, further action has been taken. In November Border Force, along with French colleagues, opened the joint Coordination and Information Centre in Calais (CCIC) and has now tripled the number of cutters operating in the Channel, enhancing our ability to disrupt those engaged in people smuggling across the Channel.”
Steve Reynolds, Head of the NCA-led INVIGOR organised immigration crime task force, said: “Crossing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in this type of craft is hugely dangerous, and it demonstrates the complete lack of regard for human life that criminals involved in people smuggling have. To them, desperate migrants are a commodity to be profited from.
“The NCA-led organised immigration crime task force is also working in France, as well as upstream in Europe and further afield, to gather intelligence and disrupt the organised crime groups involved.”
An eighth member of the group, Patrick Ward, 33, of Chennels Close, Hitchin, was prosecuted in Dunkirk, France, for assisting the entry and movement of irregular foreign nationals and received a six-month suspended custodial sentence, a £2,000 fine, and a three-year ban from entering France.