Man who organised 31 small boats crossings in just five weeks jailed

Mustaf Cunaj, pictured when he was arrested
Mustaf Cunaj, pictured when he was arrested, arranged the crossing of a woman and children aged five and nine years old, bartering prices from £8,000 down to £7,500 for their crossing -Credit:NCA

A Kingston resident, notorious for people smuggling, has been sentenced to nine years in prison after organising a staggering 31 small boat crossings from France to the UK within five weeks. Mustaf Cunaj, 41, originally from Albania and residing in Tolworth during his criminal activities, was implicated in smuggling children as young as five across the Channel.

An investigation by the National Crime Agency (NCA) revealed that Cunaj maintained regular contact with people smugglers operating in northern France throughout the summer and autumn of 2022. He used the pseudonym 'John Brown' to communicate with migrants via WhatsApp and coordinate crossings using small boats.

Through his messages, NCA investigators connected Cunaj to at least 31 crossings within a span of five weeks. In one exchange with another smuggler, he negotiated the crossing of a woman and two children aged five and nine, haggling prices from £8,000 down to £7,500 for their journey.

Mustaf Cunaj mugshot
Mustaf Cunaj initially denied involvement in immigration crime, -Credit:NCA

Officers discovered he had exchanged over 800 messages with this contact, who was part of a people smuggling network in northern France, between August and September 2022. In another conversation, Cunaj discussed purchasing inflatable boats with prices ranging from £4,000 to £4,500 per boat.

He also enquired about lifejackets, informing his contact 'I have five people, they don't know how [to wear a lifejacket] as they are small children'.

Several images were found on his phone, revealing map locations in Calais and Dunkirk. Another image showed two users' locations in the English Channel and the North Sea.

Videos recovered from the phone depicted a boat being launched from a beach and another of migrants donning life jackets on a boat at sea.

Cunaj was initially arrested by NCA officers in October 2022 and subsequently released under investigation. He was taken into custody again in September 2023 and charged with people smuggling offences.

At first, he denied any involvement in immigration crime, claiming he only connected family members with others if they expressed interest in coming to the UK. However, Cunaj eventually confessed to conspiring to facilitate illegal immigration.

On Tuesday (April 23), he received a nine-year prison sentence at Kingston Crown Court.

Cunaj was part of a network of UK-based intermediaries linked to Hewa Rahimpur, the leader of a people smuggling network suspected of smuggling 10,000 migrants to the UK. Rahimpur was imprisoned in Belgium last year, following his arrest by the NCA in London.

Andy MacGill, Senior Investigating Officer at the NCA, stated: "Cunaj was prolific, swapping hundreds of messages in only two months with one people smuggler organising these dangerous crossings, and involved in the arrangement of many more. Entering the UK via small boat is extremely dangerous and evidence showed Cunaj had no regard for those he was smuggling, even arranging crossings for young children."

"The NCA is committed to tackling organised immigration crime as a priority and our work continues to stop people smugglers working both in the UK and overseas."