Police have bought up small boats in a bid to curtail Channel migrant crossings, The Telegraph understands.
Officers have used the tactic as part of a series of operations to disrupt the supply of boats, the biggest expense for the people-smuggling gangs behind the record number of migrants crossing the Channel this year.
It is understood officers have bought the boats not only to deny the gangs access to them but also to push up prices and reduce supply in an attempt to break the traffickers’ commercial model.
"We have a number of tools and tactics available to us, but certainly consideration around disrupting the supply chain covers all areas including buying boats and other methods of disruption," said a source.
Dinghy prices can range from several hundred to thousands of pounds, but they are in such demand that the National Crime Agency (NCA) has uncovered networks of organised criminal gangs buying them in the UK before sending them to traffickers in France.
The NCA is now targeting operations on the bigger boats the gangs have started using to ship between 60 and 80 migrants across the Channel from launch points further down the coast of northern France.
It is a cat-and-mouse game in which the traffickers store the boats well away from the coast before transporting them late at night to inflate them on the beach, or even bury them in the sand for use at a later date.
"We’re doing some operational activity with our international partners around the larger boats to see what we can do in terms of disrupting some of the supply chain," said the source.
An inflatable craft with migrant men, women and children aboard in the Channel earlier this month
Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
French police have seized and destroyed 500 boats this year, as well as preventing 8,000 migrants from setting sail – treble last year’s numbers.
More than 9,250 migrants have made the perilous Channel crossing this year, surpassing last year’s record total of 8,410. July has seen a record 3,349 arrivals in 112 boats, beating June’s high of 2,179 in 92 boats.
In a series of raids in the past six months, the NCA has smashed criminal rings in the UK supplying boats to traffickers, including one that had bought at least six vessels in Britain which had been moved to the continent. Three boats were recovered in the UK after being used to bring migrants across the Channel.
Members of another gang, arrested in April, were sourcing rigid hull inflatable boats from the UK. They were then being transported to the Netherlands for storage before being supplied to organised trafficking groups smuggling migrants from northern France and Belgium.
Jacque Beer, the NCA Regional Head of Investigation, said at the time: "In our view, those who supply them with boats knowing what they are going to be used for are equally as culpable in these criminal enterprises."
It prompted an alert earlier this year by the NCA to the UK maritime industry that organised crime groups may target them to obtain small boats for people-smugglers.
Warning signs included big offers of cash, unusual combinations of boats and equipment in one transaction, repeat purchases, lack of concern about the state of the boat, an urgency about settling the deal and online buyers picking it up in person without providing a fixed delivery address.
An NCA spokesman said: "The NCA has a number of investigations actively targeting groups involved in this type of criminality, or activity which facilitates it, for example through the supply of boats and engines or the laundering of profits.
"However, much of the criminality involved lies outside the UK, so we have built up our intelligence-sharing effort with law enforcement partners in France, Belgium and beyond. This includes having NCA officers based in those countries, sharing intelligence and working side by side on joint investigations."
Comment: Access to UK’s asylum system should be based on need, not ability to pay people smugglers
By Immigration Compliance and Justice Minister Chris Philp
Today marks the 70th anniversary since the UN Refugee Convention was signed. The United Kingdom was proud to join other nations in enshrining the rights of desperate people fleeing oppression and tyranny.
Seventy years on, and we continue to be proud of our long history of welcoming those genuinely fleeing persecution and have helped tens of thousands of refugees build a new life in the UK through our refugee resettlement schemes. Since 2015, through these schemes, we have resettled almost 25,000 men, women and children seeking refuge from persecution across the world — more than any EU country.
We continue to work with the UN refugee agency to resettle refugees directly from regions of conflict and instability, rather than those who are already in safe European countries. This is on top of wider support to those in need, like the heroic Afghan nationals who worked alongside our brave military, or British Nationals Overseas from Hong Kong whose liberties were restricted.
And we are going further. Our New Plan for Immigration will ensure that refugees resettled into the UK via safe and legal routes will be granted indefinite leave to remain on arrival in the UK, so they have the stability to rebuild their lives.
We will also trial an emergency resettlement mechanism to enable quick resettlement to the UK in a matter of weeks, and pilot a new scheme to support highly skilled people who have been forced to flee their homes to get a UK work visa.
Access to the UK’s asylum system should be based on need, not the ability to pay people smugglers. Priority should be given to the most vulnerable rather than individuals that could have claimed asylum elsewhere.
People should be claiming asylum in the first safe country they reach, rather than choosing to travel onwards to the UK as a preferred destination.
That is why, for the first time, whether you enter the country legally or illegally will have an impact on how your asylum claim progresses, and on your status in the UK if your claim in successful.
We are also taking action to break the business model of the appalling criminal gangs who profit from human misery and put lives at risk, including those facilitating dangerous and illegal Channel crossings.
Those who claim it’s heartless to stop these illegal and dangerous crossings have it the wrong way round. It would be heartless and immoral to let them continue.
Law enforcement activity has been stepped up both domestically and internationally to take down the criminal people smuggling gangs. The National Crime Agency alone has around 50 ongoing investigations into the kingpins of this criminal industry.
We are stepping up co-operation with the French, last week striking a deal to double the number of police patrols on French beaches, improve surveillance technology and enhance intelligence sharing. This builds upon the work the French have already done to stop nearly three times as many migrants from entering the UK this year compared to last year. But we know there’s much to do.
We are also changing our own laws. Our Nationality and Borders Bill – in compliance with the UN Refugee Convention we signed 70 years ago – contains a range of measures to prevent illegal entry and the criminality associated with it, including the introduction of maximum life sentences for people smugglers.
Fundamentally, all these efforts are intended to fix our broken asylum system and restore public confidence in it. We must ensure that the new system is fair and firm so that we can maintain our proud tradition of providing refuge to those most in need. That is exactly what the Government is doing.