People smugglers are using custom-made inflatable dinghies with plywood floors and held together with gaffer taper to transport as many migrants across the Channel as possible, the National Crime Agency has warned.
The national law enforcement agency said gangs are turning to ever more dangerous and rickety boats to sneak desperate refugees across to the UK.
In recent months, larger inflatables, sometimes more than 30ft long, have been used in the cruel human trade.
Investigators believe many of these large grey or black unbranded vessels have little or no commercial use and are being purposefully manufactured for people smugglers.
Other boats are also being adapted or improvised using substandard materials in a bid to increase the amount of people they can carry and make them more solid.
The warning comes after more than 26,000 migrants have reached Britain since the start of the year, compared with just 8,410 in the whole of 2020.
The National Crime Agency has warned that inflatable dinghies are being custom made for people smuggling gangs to transport as many people across the Channel as possible. Pictured, migrants on the beach at Dungeness, south east England on November 24
Boats have been found with plywood floors and held together with gaffer tape in an attempt to sneak desperate refugees across to the UK
The National Crime Agency shared pictures of boats with wooden floors and held together with tape. The boats had been seized after transporting migrants across the Channel
The numbers of migrants arriving in the UK by boat has more than tripled from last year’s numbers and is now above 26,000
In the worst tragedy seen during the Channel crisis, at least 27 migrants died off Calais last month when their inflatable boat sank.
The two sole survivors – an Iraqi and a Somalian – told police their poorly made dinghy was hit by a container ship, puncturing its thin rubber hull.
In the days before the tragedy, several similar boats were intercepted and found to be held together using strips of gaffer tape.
One had a plywood floor and another was held together with a tyre tube float, the NCA said.
At least 14 others have died attempting to make the journey across the Channel this year.
During an attempted Channel crossing in July this year, the flimsy plastic bottom of one boat gave way, plunging the passengers into the sea. Fortunately they were rescued by Border Force vessels, the NCA said.
Authorities warned people smuggling gangs are using ever more dangerous and un-seaworthy boats, which have been described as ‘death traps’.
In Calais last month, seven women – including one who was pregnant and three children – were some of the 27 who drowned in the sea trying to get from France to Britain.
The International Organisation for Migrations said it was the biggest single loss of life in the Channel since it began collecting data in 2014.
The deaths sparked a war of words between Paris and London, both blaming the other for not doing enough to stop Channel crossings.
The tragedy came just weeks after Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill was launched, proposing a crackdown on migrant crossings and turning boats back towards France.
Last month the NCA issued an alert through Interpol to worldwide law enforcement to be on the lookout for these dangerous boats.
Another boat found with wooden flooring and held together with gaffer tape. The NCA believes the boats are designed to help people smugglers transport as many migrants as possible across the Channel
Authorities believe the boats found by the NCA and Border Force have been made specifically by manufacturers to be used by criminal gangs smuggling people across the Channel
Dozens of migrants were rescued from the English Channel amid rough seas and brought to Britain on December 4
Martin Grace, head of organised immigration crime operations for the NCA, said: ‘It is clear to us that with some of the boats being used there is little or no genuine commercial use for them.
‘They are likely being manufactured and sold online for the sole purpose of being used for people smuggling, and this is now something we are focusing on.’
The NCA said a high percentage of attempted Channel crossings are still facilitated by organised criminal gangs – some operating a sophisticated network, while others are less established.
In November, the NCA worked alongside French police as part of an operation to dismantle a gang supplying boats that could carry between 40 and 60 people.
The group were also recruiting migrants from camps in northern France to travel in the dangerous vessels.
In total 18 people were arrested in the Calais, Le Havre and Paris regions of France, the NCA said.
What happens to migrants after they arrive in the UK?
Migrants who have been picked up after landing or intercepted at sea are taken to a Border Force processing centre, usually near Dover
Here arrivals are triaged to identify any medical needs or vulnerabilities, fed and checked to see if they have a criminal record. Adults have an initial interview before being sent to accommodation centre across Britain, paid for by UK taxpayers and provided by private contractors.
The migrants are given £37.75 per week for essentials like food, clothes and toiletries while they wait for a decision on their asylum application. Kent County Council normally takes unaccompanied children into its care, although other local authorities are also involved in this programme.
Other migrants might be kept in a detention centre ahead of a plan to send them back to Europe. However, just five were deported last year as ministers admitted to ‘difficulties’.
While a member of the EU, Britain was part of the Dublin Regulation, an EU-wide deal that required migrants to apply for asylum in the first member state they arrive in and could be deported back to that country if they moved on to another.
However, since Brexit there has been no formal arrangements to allow migrants to be deported to France or another EU member country.
Dan O’Mahoney, Home Office clandestine Channel threat commander, said: ‘The recent tragedy in the Channel is a devastating reminder of the dangers of Channel crossings choreographed by organised crime groups who are profiteering from these deadly and unnecessary Channel crossings.
‘We work closely with our European and international partners and police, hand-in-glove, day in, day out to arrest, investigate and prosecute organised criminals, preventing numerous departures and saving lives.
‘But this is a complicated issue and we are determined to do all we can to work with the NCA to tackle criminal gangs and prevent further loss of life.’
The NCA alone has around 50 ongoing investigations linked to the top tiers of immigration crime and since the start of this year has been involved in more than 140 arrests.
Mr Grace added: ‘While the events of last month in which at least 27 people died were an absolute tragedy, unfortunately it was not a surprise when you consider the types of boats we have seen people being put in. Frankly, they are death traps.
‘If you add that to the increasing crowding we are seeing on these vessels, and the poor weather and colder seas of winter, it all adds to a greatly increased risk.
‘It demonstrates further to us that the people smugglers involved in these crossings don’t care about the wellbeing of those they put on the boats. They don’t care if they die. They just want to exploit their desperation for money.
‘I would also reiterate our appeal from earlier in the year to those involved in the maritime industry, both here in the UK and on the Continent.
‘Please be on alert, and if you have suspicions around the purchase of the kinds of items that can be used in these crossings, please report it.’
Shops have been warned to look out for potentially suspicious activity that could mean the inflatables are being bought by people smugglers, such as large amounts of cash being used to pay and an unusual combination of boats and equipment in one transaction.
Customers asking about bulk buying equipment such as life jackets and repeatedly purchasing boats or equipment from the same shop are also suspicious, the NCA said.
Not caring about the condition of the boat or equipment being bought, or any suggestions it may not be used by the buyers should be reported to authorities, the NCA added.
And customers wanting to complete their transaction and collection as quickly as possible and online buyers travelling to collect the boat or avoiding giving a fixed delivery address are also suspicious, the NCA said.