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Task force tackles people smugglers

Published 24/06/2015

HMS Bulwark has been helping stricken migrants in the Mediterranean
HMS Bulwark has been helping stricken migrants in the Mediterranean

A 90-strong British law enforcement task force is being set up to tackle the criminal gangs behind the migration crisis in the Mediterranean.

The team, involving officers from the National Crime Agency (NCA), Border Force, Immigration Enforcement and the Crown Prosecution Service, will be responsible for pursuing and disrupting the operations of people smugglers paid by desperate migrants hoping to reach Europe.

Some of the officers will be based with Europol in Sicily and The Hague, with the rest on standby in the UK ready to deploy to the region when required, Downing Street said.

The team are expected to work with countries in the Horn of Africa and along the smugglers' route to strengthen the capabilities of the authorities there to deal with the problem.

A Number 10 spokesman said: "We have got to do more to break the link between getting on a boat in the Med and getting settlement in Europe.

"Otherwise these vast numbers will just keep on coming. That's why the Government is setting up a dedicated law enforcement team to tackle organised immigration crime in the Med region.

"Around 90 officers will be deployed in the UK, the Mediterranean and Africa to pursue and disrupt these organised crime groups profiting from the people smuggling trade. They will exploit every opportunity at source, in transit countries and in Europe to smash the gangs' criminal operations and better protect the UK from this threat."

The establishment of the task force follows a warning by the NCA that t he number of migrants being caught attempting to sneak into the UK without being spotted is set to increase, driven by the flow of migrants risking the dangerous crossing from North Africa to Italy.

"The biggest threat emanates from the North Africa into Italy route, use of which rose by over 300% in 2014," the NCA said.

The European Union has launched a naval operation against people-smugglers in the Mediterranean as part of the effort to tackle the problem.

The first phase of the operation will focus on surveillance and assessment of the criminal networks behind the boats attempting to make the dangerous crossing, but later stages of the plan could involve direct action against the smugglers, destroying their boats and bases.

Britain is deploying survey vessel HMS Enterprise to the region to take over from HMS Bulwark early next month, offering improved intelligence-gathering capabilities.

The UK's eavesdropping agency GCHQ is also involved in the effort, analysing information about the smuggling and trafficking gangs.

Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said the team would make sure that "we have the best possible intelligence picture" about the people smugglers.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today: "What they will be doing is tackling the flows of money, tackling the vessels that may have been used to transport people northwards.

"It's identifying, taking those vessels out of use. That's part of the programme, actually identifying where they may be vessels that may be being used, where there may be organised crime groups transferring people across Europe."

He said joint operations between northern European countries had already resulted in "disruptions", arrests and prosecutions of members of organised crime groups.

"Clearly there is more work that we need to do on that, but that is precisely what this fusion of National Crime Agency, Immigration Enforcement, Border Force and the Crown Prosecution Service is absolutely about," he added.

Prime Minister David Cameron was given an update on the situation at Calais by Home Secretary Theresa May and Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin.

In a message on Twitter, Mr Cameron said: "I've been meeting with the Home Secretary and Transport Secretary to discuss ensuring we continue to address the problems at Calais."

The head of advocacy at the Refugee Council, Dr Lisa Doyle, said: "David Cameron appears wilfully ignorant that the world is in the grips of one of the gravest refugee crises ever.

"Refugees are running for their lives while their countries burn. Instead of building the walls of fortress Europe higher we should be offering refuge to as many people as possible. We could put the smugglers out of business tomorrow if people were offered alternative routes to safety."

Ukip leader Nigel Farage told LBC radio: "The EU has got to completely rethink its asylum policy. It just can't offer asylum to people on this scale.

"And secondly, the United Kingdom needs to send a clearer message about illegal immigrants because they know they can come to Britain and work in the black market. They are unlikely to get caught and if they are caught, they're very unlikely to get sent back.

"The British actually could stop, or at least ameliorate, the situation in Calais by sending out clearer messages. Unfortunately, we never seem to do that."

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