People smugglers who flew migrants from France to Essex jailed

Myrteza Hilaj (left) and Kreshnik Kadena who have been jailed after used a plane to illegally transport economic migrants from northern France to an aerodrome in Essex
Hilaj (left) and Kadena's conviction followed an eight-year investigation by the National Crime Agency

Two Albanian nationals who used a plane to illegally transport economic migrants from northern France to an aerodrome in Essex have been jailed.

In March, Myrteza Hilaj, 50, and 37-year-old Kreshnik Kadena, both of Leyton, east London, were found guilty at Southwark Crown Court of facilitating the commission of a breach of immigration law.

The pair were sentenced to a combined total of five years and two months in prison, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.

Their convictions followed an eight-year investigation by the agency, codenamed Operation Micropus, into an Albanian organised crime group involved in facilitating illegal migration, money laundering, drug trafficking and the supply of counterfeit documents.

The NCA said at least nine journeys by Albanian economic migrants in 2016 and 2017 were “linked back mainly to Hilaj” – three involving light aircraft and others lorries. Kadena acted as his assistant and was primarily involved in smuggling migrants using light aircraft.

The group’s pilot would take off from North Weald Airfield in Epping Forest, Essex, and fly to Le Touquet airport on the coast of northern France to collect three to four migrants to smuggle into the UK on each trip.

The pilot would then fly to Stapleford Aerodrome, also in Epping Forest, where the migrants would leave the plane and be collected by Kadena.

The Albanian migrants would pay “up to £10,000” for transit into the UK and then “a few hundred pounds extra” for fake documents, the NCA said.

Fake documents

After a police interception in France on July 17 2017, the NCA said Hilaj and Kadena, both in the UK legally, were seen having a “fallout meeting at a local pub”. During the trial, Kadena had suggested this was his “birthday drinks”.

Hilaj, who came to the UK in the 1990s and previously worked as a restaurant owner and security guard, supplied the migrants with fake documents.

A false identity counterfeiting group, including five individuals who produced “tens of thousands” of such documents at a facility in Stratford, east London, for use in banking fraud,  provided Hilaj with many of these. He also sourced documents from a man operating a passport factory from his loft in Battersea, south-west London.

Hilaj and Kadena were arrested at their home addresses by the NCA on July 26 2017. Officers discovered messages on one of Hilaj’s phones in which he had corrected typing errors on false documents, as well as online searches regarding the aircraft interdiction on July 17.

David Green, a British pilot, and facilitator Edward Buckley were jailed in France in 2017 for the light aircraft operation, which ran from June to July 2017.

Organised crime group dismantled

The NCA operation involved a total of 27 arrests, with 11 convictions in the UK and nine convictions overseas. The agency said the operation that led to the arrests of the men ensured the “safeguarding of over 50 migrants”, who were prevented from coming to the UK via dangerous means.

It also involved the closure of four forgery factories, with confiscation orders of just under £1 million being issued.

NCA senior investigating officer Saju Sasikumar said: “Operation Micropus has seen us uncover and dismantle an organised crime group who not only facilitated illegal migration but provided a complete service to those they helped into the country, ensuring they could gain work and access services illegally.

“It demonstrates our resolve to go after all those involved in people smuggling, who risk the lives of others in pursuit of profit.”