Crime gangs smuggling millions of pounds from UK to Albania each year – NCA

Albanian crime gangs are smuggling hundreds of millions of pounds a year out of the UK and using Channel crossings to staff cannabis farms, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has said.

Britain’s version of the FBI is running more than 70 live investigations into organised immigration crime, a “significant proportion” of which have links to Albanian gangs, according to bosses.

A substantial number of Albanians are likely to have arrived in the UK “illegally” and police are seeing examples of what could be seen as “blatant manipulation” of modern slavery laws when those arrested claim to be victims of trafficking, the NCA said.

There are even suggestions Albanians are being coached while in their home country on what to say and do if they are detained in the UK.

It comes as Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama accused Britain of carrying out a “calculated attack” on his country by blaming it for the rise in Channel crossings and reiterated claims it is being used as a scapegoat for failed immigration policies.

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama
Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama (Albania Prime Minister’s Office via AP)

More than 42,000 migrants have arrived so far this year after crossing the Channel, compared with around 28,500 last yar.

Albanians are now the biggest single nationality making this journey, with 12,000 making the journey so far this year, of which 10,000 are single, adult men. This is compared with 50 in 2020, Home Office officials told MPs last month.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, senior NCA intelligence manager Ged McCann said Albanian gangs – which he described as “reliable” and “disciplined” – are “effectively bringing in the labour force for the cannabis grows”, adding: “Many individuals that are arrested in cannabis grows arrived in the country a matter of days before on small boats.”

Cash is “king” in the Balkan state, where many people do not have a bank account and there is little use of credit cards, fellow intelligence manager Steve Brocklesby said.

“Albanian OCGs (organised crime groups) in the UK, their main objective when they make money is to get it out of the country as soon as possible. So, they will smuggle it out of the UK into Albania in whatever form it comes. The estimates are that hundreds of millions of pounds UK sterling is leaving the UK and ending up in Albania, where it then gets semi-legitimised either into the banking system or to pay for construction work.”

The amount of criminal cash leaving the UK has risen “exponentially” over the last four or five years, at an increase of roughly 20%, he said.

Other ways of moving the money include changing it into euros, he said, adding: “We can expect I think to see an increasing use of crypto and other less regulated investments in the UK, as well as direct investments into the UK, in the coming years.”

Mr Brocklesby said: “We do know, anecdotally, speaking to police forces around the country, that if an Albanian illegal migrant is arrested in a cannabis grow, then often the first thing they do is claim to be a victim of trafficking.

“That is very different to most other users of the national referral mechanism (the process for identifying victims of modern slavery). It is, in many ways, blatant manipulation and it is something we believe from Albania is instilled in them before they actually arrive in the UK.”

The “attraction of the criminality is fairly significant” for Albanians arriving in the UK, many of whom will have a debt they need to repay, Mr Brocklesby said, as they could earn £10,000 working in cannabis farms for 10 weeks, as opposed to potentially £50 to £100 a day cash-in-hand working in construction and hospitality or at car washes and barbershops.

He also suggested there are “professional enablers” operating within the “legitimate Albanian community” who “assist illegal migration in many ways”, such as accountants, lawyers and security guards helping people who have arrived make a life in the UK.

Deputy director Andrea Wilson, who leads the NCA’s work on threats from Channel crossings and western Balkan crime groups, said: “Currently we have more than 70 live operations into organised immigration crime and a significant proportion of those are into Albanian organised crime groups.

“A significant proportion of Albanians in the UK are likely to have arrived here illegally.

“They are one of the top nationalities coming here illegally both through clandestine methods and on small boats. That’s not new.”

Albanian crime gangs are “resourceful, adaptable and entrepreneurial”, Ms Wilson said, with London and the South East still the dominant areas in which they operate, mainly in the cocaine and cannabis trade. But they also have an “established footprint” in towns and cities across the UK as well as more rural locations.

They have been forging close links with other nationalities involved in organised immigration crime (OIC), such as Iraqi Kurds facilitating Channel crossings from France, she added.

Despite the rise in Albanian arrivals to the UK over the summer months, Ms Wilson stressed this was not a “new phenomenon” and that there are also many nationals who have legitimate reasons to come to the country and run thriving, legal businesses.

More than 2,000 migrants crossed the Channel within 72 hours between Saturday and Monday, with 400 recorded arriving as Home Secretary Suella Braverman signed a fresh £63 million deal with France to once again boost beach patrols on its northern coastline, among other measures, in a bid to curb crossings.

The Home Office announced on Tuesday evening that four Albanian nationals have been arrested in connection with a boat landing reported in St Margaret’s beach, near Dover in Kent, on Monday morning.

Officers have reportedly been searching for several migrants who disappeared after the boat landing, with some of the group later apprehended.

Two Albanian men suspected of facilitating the beach landing were arrested after they drove off with two migrants that landed illegally and were later charged with conspiracy to facilitate illegal entry.

Both are suspected of being members of an organised crime group operating in the UK, the Home Office said.

Meanwhile, a further two men were arrested this morning for arrival to the UK without legal entry clearance.