Albanian crime groups are manipulating key modern anti-slavery tool, Britain's National Crime Agency (NCA) said on Tuesday, detailing their lucrative involvement in illegal immigration and drugs.
The "resourceful and adaptive" groups from Albania are "poly-criminal" and active in everything from cocaine dealing and cannabis production to facilitating illegal entry to Britain, it said.
The role of crime groups from Albania has come to the fore as the number of small boats crossing the Channel from France with large numbers of Albanians aboard has soared this year.
The UK government said this month that more than 40,000 migrants have made the journey so far in 2022, with Albanians, Iranians and Afghans the largest contingents.
That tops last year's 28,561 who made the dangerous journey across one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
If caught working in cannabis farms or other criminal enterprises, recruits have been coached to claim they are victims of modern-day slavery and apply to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), it added.
Established in 2009 to help protect human trafficking victims, the NRM is used to identify and refer them to agencies to ensure they receive appropriate support.
"The Albanian criminal community will manipulate the National Referral Mechanism in a fairly extensive fashion," NCA intelligence manager Steve Brocklesby told reporters.
Police forces nationwide have reported Albanian migrants arrested at cannabis growing sites will often promptly claim to be trafficking victims, he noted.
"Individuals concerned are putting up stories that clearly with a little bit of detective work are being disproved," Brocklesby added.
"It's blatant manipulation, and it is something we believe from Albania is instilled in them before they actually arrive in the UK."
- 'Reliability' -
NCA deputy director Andrea Wilson said Albanian criminal groups were increasingly cooperating with Kurdish gangs which have run the small boats to cross the Channel, bringing in migrants .
The agency -- which targets "top tier" crime groups causing the most harm -- is currently conducting over 70 operations into illegal immigration, with a "significant proportion" linked to Albanian gangs, she added.
"They're very entrepreneurial (and) they forge close links with other crime groups," Wilson said.
Over the last five years, they have largely replaced Vietnamese criminals to produce domestically-grown cannabis in Britain, said senior NCA intelligence manager Ged McCann.
"Illegal migration is their business model. They're effectively bringing in the labour force for the cannabis grows," he added.
"There's many individuals that are arrested in cannabis grows that have arrived in the country a matter of days before on small boats."
McCann noted Albanian groups have a reputation for "reliability and delivery", particularly in the drug trade.
"If they say you'll get your drugs at 11 o'clock on Friday, you'll get them at 11 o'clock."
Their rise within the UK underworld has led to an "exponential increase" in moneymaking since 2017, with hundreds of millions of pounds now smuggled annually back to Albania, Brocklesby said.
"Their main objective when they make money is to get it out of the country as soon as possible, because that's where the vulnerabilities lie for them," he said, adding in Albania "cash is king".
They will smuggle it back there, where it gets semi-legitimised into the banking system or to pay for construction work, he said.