LONDON — The authorities in Britain have arrested a Turkish truck driver on suspicion of attempting to smuggle people to France from England after discovering 16 people in the trailer of his vehicle.
The 36-year-old driver, who was not identified, was stopped on Sunday at a junction on the M25 highway southwest of London, the National Crime Agency said in a statement. The people who were discovered, including Algerian, Moroccan and Pakistani citizens, were also arrested on suspicion of immigration offenses.
Although there were no deaths, the case had echoes of a fatal episode of smuggling from 2019, when 39 people from Vietnam died in a refrigerated tractor-trailer in southeastern England. The people-smuggling trade is a huge and dangerous market, with people fleeing conflict and poverty across Africa and Asia forced to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers in return for shaky promises of transport across borders to Western Europe.
In the National Crime Agency statement, Chris Hill, a branch operations manager, said, “People-smuggling networks move migrants in both directions across the border, threatening the security of both the U.K. and our European neighbors, but also putting lives at risk.”
The English Channel, which separates France and Britain, is among the busiest shipping areas in the world and a crucial route for smugglers moving migrants around Europe. In November, Britain and France agreed to double the number of officers patrolling a 93-mile stretch of the French coast that the countries said was regularly used by smugglers.
The United Nations’ refugee agency has pressed the national authorities to combat the smuggling rings but has also expressed concern at proposals to intercept boats in the English Channel, noting that deploying vessels to “block small, flimsy dinghies may result in harmful and fatal incidents.”
While increasing numbers of people tried to cross the English Channel illegally by boat last summer, the U.N. agency noted in a briefing in August that “the numbers remain low and manageable,” adding that many took on the risky journeys to flee war and persecution. “Saving lives should be the first priority — both on land and at sea,” the agency said.
This month, Britain and France said that they had cooperated in the dismantling of a gang suspected of buying secondhand boats that were deflated and then buried on French beaches for later use in smuggling people across the English Channel. Each boat could carry 10 to 15 migrants, who would be charged 2,500 to 3,000 euros, or $3,000 to $3,600, apiece for the journey, the National Crime Agency said.
The British immigration authorities made 418 arrests and secured 203 convictions in 2019, the Home Office said, with about half of those convicted found guilty of people-smuggling offenses.
Chris Philp, the British minister for immigration compliance, said, “These dangerous crossings are facilitated by serious organized criminals exploiting people and profiting from human misery.” He noted that Britain and France worked closely to share intelligence and stop illegal immigration.
“We have invested tens of millions of pounds in new infrastructure to enhance border security,” he said, “with all freight vehicles entering and leaving the U.K. screened for people being smuggled, using a range of techniques, which include using carbon dioxide detectors and motion sensors as well as sniffer dogs.”