Albanian mafia’s new way to smuggle migrants into Britain – and under Spanish law they’re not committing any offence
The Albanian mafia have opened up a new route to smuggle migrants into Britain through a busy Spanish port, a Sunday People investigation has found.
Gangsters charging up to £2,500 per person are successfully trafficking those desperate for a new life – including refugees from the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria – aboard ferries from Bilbao.
Police in the northern Spanish city are struggling to cope with the surge in migrants in the last three months.
In two years there has been a tenfold increase in people caught trying to get into lorries or containers at the port.
But under Spanish law they are committing only a civil offence – so police can only take their details and free them.
Hundreds more camping out waiting to seize their chance can also not be touched – as they carry tourist visas.
Our probe found that after handing the huge fee to Mafia bosses, migrants are given a phone, along with £700 in cash to smuggle to fixers in Britain.
Lured with the promise of illegal jobs in car washes and on building sites in London, they are unaware they will finish up at the mercy of callous gang masters.
Arriving in Bilbao, our investigators found more than 100 people in tents and under motorway bridges at the port perimeter.
Ismail, 29, a welder from Peshkopi in north east Albania, shares a two-man tent with three others, including his nephew.
He told us: “I wanted to go to England legally, but it’s impossible. Now I have to go illegally.
“I know there are people you can pay but I have no money. I have to try and get there for free by smuggling myself.”
In 2015, police made 119 stops of migrants trying to sneak through Bilbao’s port. In 2016, that figure rose to 380. This year, it is already at a record 1,200.
Those caught included 60 Iraqis, 45 Afghans and 25 Pakistanis. By far the most – 950 of them – came from Albania.
At a makeshift camp 300m west of Bilbao’s port we found scores of Albanian men, mainly in their teens and 20s.
Some were fleeing the ex-Communist country after suffering persecution over their ethnicity, sexuality or religion.
But with high youth unemployment, many others are economic migrants. The UK, with 20,000 Albanians legally living here, is their most popular destination.
Two camps in the hills around Bilbao port were destroyed by police a week ago and security has been stepped up.
Fences have been beefed up, CCTV increased and more private security patrols hired. But that has not deterred the smugglers or their desperate “clients”.
Once they have made it to the port, they risk serious injury and even death in their efforts to start a new life here. Many jump on to moving trucks as they approach the gates, or scramble into parked trailers, hoping to hide among their cargo.
Others are helped into sealed shipping containers, risking suffocation as they wait for them to be opened again at their destination. Some jump on to the ferries themselves as they are leaving port.
Ismail told us: “I’ve been here a month. When I arrived there were more here. Some have given up and gone to Italy instead, some managed to get to England.
“I know people who have made it, they are in London working as builders and doing any extra work they can.”
He told in broken English how he and his nephew had flown from Albania to Paris, bought a tent, and taken a 12-hour bus ride to Bilbao for 70 Euros each.
Ismail hopes to earn enough money in Britain to support his elderly parents and other family back in Albania.
He said: “There’s no work in my country. It is very hard – the politicians don’t know what they’re doing. I’d love to work as a welder in London, but I’ll do any work I can find. I just need to get there.”
Another Albanian in his early 20s, who declined to give his name, said he worked a year in Germany and was now headed to England. He has been caught three times in trucks. He said: “It takes time. The police can catch us most of the time, but not every time. Hopefully next time they will not find me.
“I have friends in South London and when I get there I’ll live with them. They say there is plenty of work, plenty of money to be made.”
Brittany Ferries run three passenger ships a week from Bilbao to Portsmouth and two taking freight to Poole.
So far this year 1,765 migrants have been detained on board. Of those, 66 were caught by UK Border Force after arriving here.
The firm’s associate director Roberto Castilla said: “The locals are worried what could happen next. The smugglers work in groups to distract the guards.
“Security do a good job, but the port is 11km in size so it’s difficult. The migrants stay on top of the hills so they have a full view of the whole port.”
He said the problem has worsened dramatically since 2012. “At that time we were catching up to 300 a year. Now it can be 300 a month.”
The National Crime Agency has flagged up concern over violent Albanian gangs with control of human trafficking and
Spanish police’s Esteban Izquierdo said numbers have soared since
migrant camps at Calais were closed.
He said: “By far the biggest number are from Albania, male and young. We do all we can.”
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