Wearing bright orange life jackets, a long line of migrants, all young men in their 20s and 30s, strode up a gangway at Dover yesterday and possibly into a new life in Britain.
They had just been rescued from an inflatable boat drifting in the English Channel – one of at least eight vessels carrying around 250 asylum seekers that made the perilous 20-mile journey across the Strait of Dover.
The men were the latest to reach the UK as part of a criminal enterprise in which people smuggling gangs cram migrants on to overloaded boats before launching them into the world’s busiest shipping lane.
The scene unfolded as a secret military intelligence report, leaked to The Mail on Sunday, exposes in extraordinary detail how the gangs masterminding this trafficking are operating this summer and – crucially – the nationality of those paying up to £5,500 for a place on a boat.
Using satellites and a fleet of drones, analysts based at an operations centre in Portsmouth tracked 70 boats that made the crossing over a six-week period in June and July and mapped the beaches where they were launched from.
They revealed how the ruthless gangs are operating from a 90-mile stretch of the French coastline from Fort-Mahon-Plage near the town of Berck to Bray-Dunes near Dunkirk.
A Royal Navy intelligence unit examined inflatable boats seized after landing on beaches on the English south coast or towed ashore by the Border Force for further clues about the criminal gangs.
About 40 migrants carry an inflatable boat towards the water before they attempt to cross the Channel to Britain
According to the astonishing dossier handed to The Mail on Sunday, defence chiefs now believe nine competing Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) are targeting Britain as part of a sophisticated international criminal web.
The groups collectively smuggled 2,862 migrants across the Channel between June 1 and July 12, with many obtaining their inflatable boats from manufacturers in China.
The file – marked official sensitive – reveals that the largest proportion of those making the illegal crossings appear to be economic migrants and not refugees.
A total of 1,075 of those who made the crossing were from Albania – an impoverished but peaceful country where there has been no war since 1997, when an economic crisis sparked an outbreak of violence.
A World Bank report states that after strong GDP growth last year, the proportion of the population living in poverty in Albania ‘dropped significantly’ from 31 per cent to 22 per cent in 2021. Unemployment, however, remains high in the north of the country, where many of those who arrive in the UK come from.
‘If you go to a secondary school in northern Albania and children are asked to describe how they see their future, all the boys draw a lorry or a boat with an Albanian flag going to the UK,’ said Muhamed Veliu, a political correspondent with Top Channel TV in Albania.
The town of Kukes, near the border with Kosovo, is known as ‘Little London’ and its streets are full of cars bought in the UK. Nearly every family is believed to have links to Britain.
Mr Veliu said: ‘They know how well their relatives are doing – they get employment in the UK and are settled. They think, “Why should we waste our time in northern Albania not doing anything? Let’s go to the UK, work and come back with a flashy car like others who went before us.” ’
This map shows sites on the French coast where boats have been launched by one of the gangs trafficking migrants
The revelation about the number of Albanians crossing the Channel is a boost for Home Secretary Priti Patel, who has argued most people who travel to the UK in small boats are not genuine asylum seekers.
After hearing about the leaked report, Natalie Elphicke, Tory MP for Dover, said last night: ‘Everyone knows Albanians are not fleeing from war or persecution. This is plainly illegal economic migration organised by criminal people smuggling gangs.’
Each OCG has been assigned a codename – many taken from Greek mythology. The most prolific group – dubbed Dragon – transported 887 migrants, including 278 from Albania, with an average of 52 people crammed on to each boat.
The document reveals how two of the gangs – Dragon and Lotus – have boats made to order by factories in China with extra tube sections inserted to lengthen them and increase the number of people who can be loaded on board.
The report says: ‘It is likely that OCGs using Chinese inflatable boats have altered the stock models to leave off unnecessary features in order to lower the cost and speed up manufacturing time.’
It has now emerged that an international police operation on July 5 smashed one of the gangs under surveillance by the military team.
Detectives seized 1,200 life jackets, 150 rubber boats, almost 50 engines, firearms, drugs and £33,753 in cash after raids against the Dragon network. A total of 39 people were arrested, including six in the UK.
A statement by Europol after the raids highlighted the violent nature of the vile trade.
It said: ‘The competition for control of the lucrative migrant smuggling business and for launch sites for the boats regularly resulted in acts of serious violence inside the criminal network, including two attempted murders… in France and Germany.’
The dossier also said gangs named Colossus and Behemoth operate the biggest inflatable boats and collectively smuggled 546 people over the six weeks.
A huge sandy beach at the sleepy holiday resort of Gravelines, between Calais and Dunkirk, is used as a launch site by five of the gangs, the report reveals.
On July 11 a large group of almost exclusively male migrants was pictured carrying an inflatable boat through the waves and launching it off the beach.
The leaked report indicates that the crossing was arranged by either the Lotus, Colossus or Hydra gangs. Hours later large numbers of migrants were brought ashore by the Border Force at Dover in Kent.
Despite the beach being pinpointed as an epicentre of people smuggling, The Mail on Sunday did not see any patrols by French police when a reporter visited yesterday.
Elia Carpentier, 20, who works in the Gravelines tourist office on the beachfront, told how she had seen a boat full of migrants leave the beach at 7pm on Friday.
‘I was really surprised because normally they leave when the sun goes down or at dawn,’ she said. ‘The boat waited for them at the edge of the water. I’m not sure how many got on but there were men, women and children in the group.’
TikTok videos show dozens of Albanian migrants making the crossing, with this group unfurling the nation’s flag on the boat
Miss Carpentier added that she had seen ‘more than 100’ migrants walking through Gravelines on Friday at lunchtime as she made her way to work.
‘It was probably the biggest group I’ve seen,’ she said. ‘They don’t hide themselves. The police let them go. Before, they would arrest them to keep them safe, but now there’s too many of them so they let them be.’
She added that it was an open secret where the migrants hid before boarding dinghies.
‘They come from Dunkirk by bus because it’s free,’ she explained.
‘When they arrive they walk through the centre of Gravelines down to the beach. You know them when you see them as they tend to stay in groups. At the far end of the beach there is a campsite and beyond that is a forest. They set up camp there for one or two nights before waiting for a boat.’
Until recent years the preferred method for smuggling people across the Channel was in the back of a lorry. But improved security at French and UK ports has increased the risk of detection – and the price people smugglers charge.
They are now believed to charge £22,000 to smuggle someone in a lorry, compared with £5,500 to make the crossing on an inflatable boat.
Albanian gangsters often act as middlemen in the cross-Channel people smuggling operations and then force some of those they have helped traffic to work as ‘slaves’ in their empires in the UK or recruit others as willing foot soldiers.
After seizing control of almost the entire UK cocaine market, Albanian organised crime has now begun to dominate the illegal cultivation of cannabis in Britain.
The criminals often flaunt their wealth on Facebook and TikTok – posing with piles of cash and luxury cars – in a bid to attract even more young people to leave Albania and attempt the Channel crossing.
Human traffickers also advertise their services on TikTok, with dozens of videos showing Albanians making the crossing. In one video posted last month, a large group of Albanian men unfurled their national flag as their boat headed towards the English coastline.
The Mail on Sunday understands that Gledis Nano, general director of the Albanian State Police, last month met police chiefs at the National Crime Agency in London to discuss people smuggling and how to crack down on Albanian organised crime.
A UK Government spokesman said: ‘The Nationality and Borders Act makes it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK illegally and we have introduced life sentences for those who facilitate illegal entry into the country. Since the introduction of the act, 26 people have been arrested.’