March 26, 2023

After arrests and 'kingpin' snared, SUE REID investigates Channel gang

Near the pretty German market town of Osnabruck, in the north-west of the country, is a farmhouse with some outbuildings and a lorry yard.

The property, hidden behind tall trees, is down a nondescript track, but only about 100 yards from a main road that leads to ‘s autobahns and thence to the and Belgian borders.

From the farmhouse, it takes less than six hours to drive the 340-or-so miles to Calais.Set off at 7pm in a truck and you will reach the tollbooths of the French town soon after midnight.

Which is exactly what one people-smuggling gang has been doing for the past 18 months.

One German anti-trafficking official said criminal gangs see Channel crossings as a ‘honeypot’

From Osnabruck, this gang has been ferrying dangerous inflatable rubber boats and cheap outboard engines to the French beaches, from where thousands upon thousands of migrants have set out across the Channel to reach Britain in a vast criminal conspiracy.

A man suspected of leading an organised crime group is pictured in an National Crime Agency handout image

Now the game may be up.In an extraordinary and long-awaited success, Britain’s elite National Crime Agency (NCA) — along with hundreds of police from Europol — this week pounced on the farmhouse, and others nearby, in a raid that had been planned for more than a year.

The NCA’s Operation Punjum was carried out alongside Operation Thoren in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands in an attempt to break the people-smuggling ring.A remarkable 60 boats, many ‘barely seaworthy’, a similar number of outboard engines and 900 life jackets were seized —along with guns, drugs and several thousand euros in cash.

There was also plenty of forensic evidence linking Kurdish criminals to this filthy trade.Scores of the gang’s main players were arrested, some in the UK.

The human traffickers are believed to have been responsible for smuggling as many as 10,000 people across the Channel last year, charging up to €5,000 (£4,231) per journey.This would account for a quarter of all migrants smuggled across during the 18 months the gang was operational, and would have made them profits running to tens of millions of pounds.

Their tentacles stretch from the badlands of Iraq and Iran to Turkey, and then into Europe and Britain. ‘Some of the Osnabruck gang members are based in Britain and have homes there,’ an anti-trafficking official in Germany told me this week.’They spend time in Europe and back in their birth countries, but they view the migrants’ sea-route to the UK as a honeypot.’

The farm near Osnabruck, journey was home to hundreds of jackets and cheap boat engines

She added: ‘We think it was at a kitchen table on a laptop or mobile phone in the homes of the UK’s Kurdish communities that the early planning for the Osnabruck enterprise took place.It was brilliantly operated, you have to give them that. But we have been watching and waiting for our day to come.’

The Mail visited Osnabruck and one of the farmhouses in question last winter, following a tip-off from migrants in Calais.What we discovered was extraordinary.

Piecing together the evidence, we found that the farmhouse was a storage depot for rubber boats and Tohatsu outboard engines.

Through another source in Germany, we were passed photographs taken inside an outbuilding at the farmhouse, which show piles of unopened boxes with Tohatsu logos, alongside boxes of boats wrapped in plastic.

Footage taken on a mobile phone shows a rubber boat, of the colour that landed daily on the Kent coast carrying migrants last year, laid on the floor.A young member of the gang is inspecting it for damage.

But Osnabruck is only one part of the jigsaw. Organising thousands of migrants’ crossings into Britain requires a huge international plot.

‘The gang was running a brilliant military-style operation. It was copied from the ‘just in time’ methods of delivering parts to car factories at the exact moment they are needed,’ a British anti-trafficking expert has told the Mail.

‘The idea was to get boats, engines and migrants on a French beach at precisely the same time, and under darkness, so that a launch could happen quickly.There was no hanging around. The speed befuddled the French police.’

One Iranian-Kurdish migrant, who watched such an operation unfold last summer, told me more when I met him in eastern Germany a few months ago.’I was on a Calais beach one night,’ he said. ‘It was just before 2am when a truck arrived. It was driven by a dark-haired woman with a Dutch or German accent. She called out in a guttural voice: ‘We are here.’

‘The migrants had just arrived at the beach from the camps in Calais, following a map ‘pin’ on their mobile phones sent to them by the traffickers.This will have come with an instruction from the gang on what time to get there.

‘The rubber boat and an outboard appeared in the truck at the same moment. They made the migrants unload and inflate the boat. Then they were off, running towards the sea, carrying the black-and-green boat on their heads.A couple of the male migrants carried the outboard after them. It was all over in minutes. The lorry was already heading back to Germany when the migrants pushed the boat out to sea and towards England.’

So how, you might wonder, have we got to this sorry state of affairs?

Some twenty years ago, migrants reaching Europe were drawn to Calais by a Red Cross centre that gave them shelter, food and clothing.It housed 200 people but was shut by the French authorities at the request of Britain.

Yet migrants from Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans stayed put — and more quickly joined them.Some waited for years to slip, with the help of traffickers, into lorries travelling to England, as they set up a giant Calais shanty camp that became known as The Jungle.

When this encampment was torn down by the French government in 2017, the migrants continued to arrive in Calais and nearby Dunkirk.They were reluctant to give up hope of reaching Britain, which some called the ‘promised land’.

Realising they still had an eager market, the traffickers turned to boat crossings — and found astonishing success. First tens, then hundreds of the vessels were soon coming over each year.

Every day, this spring and early summer, more migrants have been taxied to the Kent coast after being picked up from the middle of the Channel by Border Force vessels and RNLI lifeboats.Last month, 3,136 migrants crossed the Channel in 76 boats. Many will have been travelling on the unseaworthy craft sent to France from Osnabruck.

But why has it taken so long to crack the ruthless traffickers’ conspiracy?It all starts with the gangs’ ‘Mr Bigs’, whose ethnic roots lie thousands of miles away in turbulent places such as Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and Sardasht, a majority Kurdish-speaking city in Iran.

Proudly Kurdish, these gang kingpins speak many different languages, including English, as many have been educated and lived for years here or elsewhere in Europe, often as asylum seekers.

‘From the top down, the gangs are run by Iraqi and Iranian Kurds,’ says an informant in west Germany.’Some have dual nationalities and live in fine houses bought with their ill-gotten riches in Holland, France, Germany and Britain.

‘Others lower in the pecking order are Kurdish migrants.

‘As they pass through Europe to travel across the Channel as bogus or real asylum seekers, they are drawn into the gangs, working as ‘runners’ or ‘facilitators’.They need the money given to them by the gangmasters to survive.’

The key to the success of the mega-trafficking operation is secrecy. Just like a ring of drug dealers, the names of the Kurdish masterminds are not known to those working below them.

That confidentiality travels down the hierarchy, right to the most junior ‘runners’ working on the beaches of northern France.

Nicknames and pseudonyms are used.’Burner’ mobile phones are changed daily. ‘It is slick and clever, brilliant to behold,’ a UK intelligence officer has told us.

The code of omerta is ruthlessly enforced. Anyone who speaks out can expect a gun to their head, whether in Iran, Iraq, on the Calais beaches, or in the North London barbers’, Midlands car washes and Yorkshire kebab shops: cash-only businesses that launder the money.

Even so, last year the Mail uncovered the identity of one of the main players in the Osnabruck operation. We found that a 37-year-old Iranian Kurd, Rauf Rahimifar, had been arrested in a raid by Danish and French police last June at his flat in the village of Viborg, navigation electronics Denmark.

He was suspected of being instrumental in buying boats in Iraq and Turkey and sending them to France via Germany for the Channel crossings.Rahimifar has also been named by Danish prosecutors as an orchestrator of the disaster in which an Iranian-Kurdish toddler, Artin, and his family were drowned as they set off from France for the UK on an overcrowded boat in October 2020.

When the Mail discovered the whereabouts of Rahimifar, with his wife Hajar and three children, it was clear he had been leading a double life.

Claiming to be a genuine asylum seeker in Denmark, he had been given a helping hand and enrolled on a programme finding jobs for refugees.He had begun working at his local McDonald’s.

In a sorry twist, he was also convicted in Viborg of being a ‘Peeping Tom’ for spying on a female acquaintance as she undressed in January last year, and given a hefty fine by the courts.He lost his job and a small market stall business he ran soon collapsed.

Knowing he was a wanted man in France after the Artin family disaster, he did not return to that country. But he was clever. When Rahimifar learned that the Danish and French police were about to arrest him and planned to extradite him to France, he attempted to disappear before being stopped in a dawn raid.

And it is where he intended to go that is fascinating.

Our sources have said: ‘We believe the morning after the dawn raid at his home, he was planning to drive via Turkey to his homeland.

‘He was planning to set up a factory making boats in his region of Sardasht, Iran.’

When we visited Rahimifar’s home, his wife told us that allegations of him being a trafficking kingpin were ‘lies’.However, Rahimifar has now been extradited to France to face the allegations against him. Last night, the northern French prosecuting authorities said he was in jail awaiting trial as investigations into his activities continue.

Of course, all suspects are innocent until proven guilty.But the modus operandi of Rahimifar, as alleged by the Danes and the French, has a familiar ring to it.

This week, the NCA named one trafficking kingpin as Hewa Rahimpur, a 29-year-old Iranian-Kurd asylum seeker who was arrested in May in East London and now faces extradition.

According to court records, Rahimpur was granted leave to remain in the UK in 2020, claiming to be a Kurdish activist facing ‘political oppression’.

Chris Farrimond, the NCA’s threat leadership director, this week said Rahimpur and the gang were coordinating delivery of the boats from Turkey, often bought online from China before being transported to Germany and on to France.

‘They have been warehousing them in Germany, and then calling them forward as they require them for the crossings,’ he said.

He added that it was intelligence from his own NCA officers that had sparked this week’s raid and arrests in Europe and Britain.

Some months ago, the Mail was told that the gangs’ ‘just in time’ strategy had been uncovered by British and European intelligence services.But we were advised not to publish details during the NCA and Europol’s ongoing operation.

However, there was one significant sign that things were beginning to stack against the traffickers, which can now be revealed. The Mail was informed that the trucks, which were sent with just three boats in each to avoid drawing attention, had to pass through toll roads into Calais with pay booths.

Because many trucks were needed to feed the boat frenzy, the NCA and Europol were able to monitor numerous drivers’ details as they headed for the beaches.

One migrant informant has told us that 99 per cent of the trucks passed through the toll booths and could, therefore, be tracked by Britain and Europe’s anti-trafficking units in Calais.

And that sparked the remarkable detective trail that ended at a German farmhouse this week, stopping the ‘just in time’ gangsters.

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