Eighteen people have appeared in court in France accused of people smuggling in relation to at least 127 Albanians seeking to reach Britain. Prosecutors are seeking lengthy jail terms for a number of the accused, who are said to have charged up to €20,000 per family to make the crossing.
In her closing arguments, public prosecutor Anne Fourmel told the court in Rennes, western France, that the accused “exploited human misery” by demanding hefty sums for migrants to “reach el Dorado in England”. For a single person making the trip, the fee was €6,000, Agence France-Presse has reported.
She requested the stiffest sentence – eight years behind bars – for Edmond Bari, an Albanian accused of playing a “major role” in the formation of the Brittany based smuggling ring.
For Philippe Collin, accused of being the French lynchpin in the operation, and Kosovan migrant Bujar Curri, she requested similar sentences of seven years jail time plus a fine of €150,000. Collin denies having profited from the operation.
A number of skippers, mostly young Bretons, also face jail terms for transporting the migrants to England. An investigation carried out in 2012 found that at least 16 trips by yacht and speedboat ferried migrants from ports in northern and western France to the shores of England.
Two people implicated in the smuggling ring have since committed suicide – a sailor, and a woman said to be involved in organising the crossings.
The use of local skippers in the operation is consistent with an emerging pattern of French citizens turning to the illicit trade in order to bolster earnings.
In November a 20 year old French fisherman was caught red-handed setting up his Zodiac dingy on the shore near Dunkirk in preparation for the voyage. At least five others, all Vietnamese and Albanian citizens, were arrested in the same operation.
According to legal sources the trafficking gangs, who are often Asian or Albanian, have turned from recruiting their fellow citizens to recruiting French citizens in financial straits as it poses less risk for the gang masters. Businessmen struggling to keep their business afloat, and students are among those targeted to carry out the cross-channel runs in return for large sums of money.
With so much money to be made, the rise of the trafficking gangs has been prolific. Speaking on Europe 1 radio, French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve said: “We have dismantled a very large number of networks since the start of the year. In France, it’s nearly 200 networks representing 3,000 individuals, and in the Calais region it’s around 30 networks, representing 700 individuals.”