People smuggling gang jailed for foiled Yarmouth boat operation
- Credit: National Crime Agency
A gang of people traffickers have been jailed for trying to smuggle 69 Albanians into the UK via Great Yarmouth.
The people smugglers had tried to get the migrants, who included two pregnant women, to land at the River Yare on a converted fishing boat called the Svanic.
It had then been planned that the migrants would be collected in cars and driven elsewhere in the country.
The gang had planned to make more than £1m from the journey.
However the plot was foiled after the crew caught the attention of authorities when the Svanic ran aground off Sweden, leading to her being intercepted off Great Yarmouth on November 17, 2020.
Judge David Turner QC, sentencing the people smuggling gang, said the fishing vessel had been "made to look innocuous in a North Sea context".
He described conditions on board as "terrifying", adding that organisers had "plainly rounded up migrants and insisted they board in Ostend (in Belgium) - weapons it seems were produced by some of the organisers".
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He told the defendants: "This was organised crime. Your aim was gain and profit, you cared little for safety and welfare."
Charlene Sumnall, prosecuting, said the near 30m-long trawler was sourced from Latvia and had been "chosen for the very reason that she was cheap".
"She had been sat rotting in a dry dock for a number of years," she said.
"This one trip alone would garner those involved in the criminality over a million pounds.
"This was very much a commercial enterprise. The valuable cargo being the 69 souls, including two pregnant women, who were on board the unseaworthy vessel."
Ms Sumnall said the venture was "far more sophisticated than small boat crossings, dinghies and the like" and that criminals were "using the squalid and dangerous conditions on board the Svanic to line their own pockets".
She said it was "not a voyage doomed to fail", adding: "There were planned to be at least weekly trips, 50 people at a time."
But the boat, built almost 60 years ago, was intercepted by UK Border Force vessels in the North Sea late on November 17 last year as it sailed from the Ostend area of Belgium towards Great Yarmouth.
It was escorted into Harwich in Essex.
There were 20 lifejackets on board for 72 people, an earlier trial was told.
Five men had been convicted of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration, with 35-year-old Arturas Jusas, of Wandsworth Road, Lambeth, admitting the offence, and four others found guilty after a trial.
Jusas, 39-year-old Kfir Ivgi, of Corrigan Close, Finchley, and Sergejs Kuliss, 32, of Albert Basin Way, Newham, were described by prosecutors as "UK-based organisers".
Jusas was jailed for nine years and nine months, Ivgi for 10 years and Kuliss for nine years.
Latvian national Aleksandrs Gulpe, 44, and 57-year-old Ukrainian national Igor Kosyi, both described by prosecutors as crew members, were arrested when the boat reached land in the early hours of November 18.
Kosyi was jailed for seven years. Gulpe is due to be sentenced at a later date as he was isolating with Covid symptoms.
Martin Rutherford QC, for Ivgi, said the Svanic "ran aground in Sweden and elsewhere due to her navigation that caught the attention of authorities both in Sweden and the UK".
"Whatever the conspirators hoped for in this case, it in fact was highly likely there wasn't going to be a second trip due to the competence or otherwise," he said.
Narita Bahra QC, for Jusas, said "none of the migrants were injured in any way".
Jeremy Lynn, for Kuliss, said the vessel was "fundamentally seaworthy" but there were "some mishaps that were the fault of the clumsy crew".
A sixth defendant, Ukrainian national Volodymyr Mykhailov, 49, who the court heard was arrested when the boat reached land, was cleared of the same charge.
Reaction to sentencing
The operation to stop and seize the Svanic off Great Yarmouth involved the National Crime Agency, Border Force, HM Coastguard, Immigration Enforcement and Essex Police.
The National Crime Agency had been alerted to the vessel by the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre in Lisbon after the centre had received a report of suspicious activity from the Swedish authorities who had to assist the Svanic after it ran aground 15 days prior to picking up the migrants.
After the sentencing the National Crime Agency director of investigations Nikki Holland said: “These men had no qualms about trying to smuggle vulnerable migrants on board an unseaworthy vessel, with ambitions to bring in hundreds more using this deadly method.
“Their sole motivation was monetary greed so I’m delighted they are now beginning lengthy jail terms for these despicable crimes.
“Working with partners like Border Force and Immigration Enforcement, we will relentlessly pursue people smugglers and bring them before the courts to face the consequence of their actions.”