As first reported by Island Echo on Monday, the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit (SEROCU) and the National Crime Agency last week foiled a plan to smuggle 5 Albanian migrants into the UK.
The operation involved a boat which travelled from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg, France during the early hours of Friday morning (26th June).
It was during the early hours of Saturday morning that the 32ft boat attempted to leave port in France. However, unbeknown to those on board, the vessel was being watched by the Maritime Gendarmerie who intercepted the boat. The authorities, who were acting on a tip-off from the British, were forced to draw their weapons.
The 2 Brits and 6 Albanians on board denied trying to cross the channel to England and said they were fishing. The Criminal Court of Cherbourg rubbished that claim on Thursday though as the group had been under surveillance. The court heard how the accused were part of a network of organised criminals involved in human trafficking.
Van Praagh, a mechanic who previously run his own garage on Embankment Road in Bembridge, and his accomplice, 54-year-old W M, from London, were photographed boarding the boat ‘Freedom’ on the Isle of Wight and were tailed on their passage to France.
Van Praagh told the French court earlier today that he was forced to carry out the journey by another, unnamed individual and that he feared for his life. This account was supported by Mills. It’s said that Josh received in the region of £250,000 for carrying out the operation which originally was to involve up to 16 migrants, as well as drugs.
W M received 4 years in prison for facilitating with the entry, movement or illegal stay of a foreigner in the territory of a State party to the protocol against the smuggling of migrants in an organized gang. Joshua Van Praagh received a 3-year sentence for the same offence. A third defendant, Armando Hodo from Ersekë in Albania, also received 3 years behind bars.
The trio have been banned from entering France for 10 years and £9,000 in cash has been seized from the boat, alongside mobile phones. The boat itself has also been seized.
A 43-year-old man from the Isle of Wight was also arrested in the UK as part of the investigation, but released pending further enquiries. It has been confirmed to Island Echo by SEROCU that the arrest took place in Ryde on Saturday 27th June.
The migrants caught on the boat by the authorities included 4 men and a pregnant woman. It is unclear if they were to be brought to the Isle of Wight or another UK destination.
Van Praagh’s family had raised concerns about his whereabouts earlier this week. He was last heard from on Thursday when he said he was going fishing. He never returned.
NCA deputy director Matthew Long said:
“These convictions and jail sentences are testament to the close partnerships we have with our law enforcement colleagues in France.
“We recognise the threat posed by criminal networks involved in immigration crime, and we are determined to do all we can to disrupt and dismantle them.
“People smugglers treat migrants as a commodity to be profited from, and are content to put them in situations of extreme danger. That is why this type of crime is a priority for us.”
Detective Inspector Clair Trueman, from SEROCU, said:
“We have worked closely with our counterparts in France and wider UK law enforcement partners in order to stop those who attempt to facilitate illegal immigration.
“These are serious crimes, where vulnerable people have their lives put at unnecessary risk in order to make money without any considerations for their welfare.
“SEROCU will continue to work jointly with the NCA, Border Force and authorities abroad to catch these organised crime groups and protect those at risk from them.”
UPDATE – The 54-year-old from London has appealed his conviction.