Two suspected ringleaders in an alleged people smuggling gang that used minicab and lorry drivers to move migrants in and out of the UK have been arrested in early morning raids.
The men, aged 52 and 28, were held on suspicion of conspiring to facilitate illegal immigration during a National Crime Agency (NCA) swoop in Woodford Green and Bushwood, east London, on Wednesday.
Another five people who are all licensed minicab drivers were also arrested for allegedly moving migrants to and from lorry drop-off or pick-up points.
Investigators also found a safe house in Mile End with bunk beds crammed into every room where 11 suspected migrants were found.
The operation involved more than 130 officers and follows an investigation, codenamed Operation Symbolry, into an organised crime group using a network of predominantly Romanian lorries to smuggle people between France and the UK.
Five lorry drivers have already been convicted in relation to the investigation, after migrants were found hidden in the back of their trucks.
More than 100 migrants have been intercepted during the operation, including three wanted criminals who were trying to flee the UK, the NCA said.
NCA branch operations manager Chris Hill said: “Operation Symbolry is a significant investigation into a wide-ranging criminal network involved in people smuggling, moving migrants illegally in both directions across the border between the UK and France.
“We believe the arrests today, coupled with the actions we have already taken, will end the activities of that network.
“Organised crime groups often rely upon enablers such as complicit lorry drivers and minicab drivers to carry out their work, offering them money to help.
“What I would say to those drivers is that if they are approached, they should tell us, either by calling police on 101 or contacting the charity Crimestoppers anonymously.
“The penalties for drivers caught smuggling migrants are severe, and I would ask those tempted by the idea to consider the potential impact on their lives and livelihoods.”
The NCA has around 50 ongoing investigations into people trafficking and organised immigration crime.
NCA deputy director of investigations Chris Farrimond said: “People smugglers are ruthless, treating migrants as a commodity, and they do not care about the safety of those they transport. We have seen this, tragically, in recent and historical mass fatalities.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel, who was present at one of the east London raids on Wednesday, said people smugglers are “treating innocent lives as a commodity and lining their pockets while people are dying”.
In March she announced plans to crack down on people smuggling with maximum life sentences for those involved in the crime, and moves to deny asylum to migrants who have travelled through a “safe” country such as France to reach the UK.