A man arrested at Eastbourne’s Sovereign Harbour on suspicion of attempting to bring illegal immigrants into the UK has appeared in court today.
Afrim Xhekaliu was among nine Albanian nationals rescued by lifeboat crew in January and taken into the harbour on January 31, 2018.
While many were found in a state of hypothermia, Xhekaliu was apparently ‘dry and healthy’ and wearing a wetsuit and life jacket, the prosecution said.
He denies a charge of making and carrying out or management to facilitate the entry into the UK of unlawful individuals.
Speaking at Lewes Crown Court, prosecutor Kelly Brocklehurst said: “This is a case that arises out of an investigation by the National Crime Agency (NCA) into an attempt by a number of Albanian nationals to enter the UK unlawfully.
“[They] were attempting to cross the Channel from France covertly in a rigid-hull inflatable boat.”
He was the one in charge on that rib and was responsible, the evidence suggests, for getting it across the channel.Kelly Brocklehurst, prosecutor
After several 999 calls from the boat, or ‘rib’, the nine individuals were rescued by the RNLI in the early hours of the morning.
The lifeboat crew saw Mr Xhekaliu ‘talking to other occupants of the rib and [he] appeared to be making some hand signals’, the prosecution said.
The boat’s occupants – eight men and one woman – were brought into Eastbourne Harbour and turned over to border forces that afternoon.
Mr Brocklehurst said: “All of those aboard were found in possession of Albanian passports or Albanian ID cards.
“All nine persons were determined to be unlawful immigrants.”
He told the court that emergency medical services found eight of the passengers to be ‘soaked to the skin and hypothermic’.
However he added that the defendant was ‘dry and healthy’, one of two wearing a life jacket and the only one wearing a wetsuit.
Mr Brocklehurst said: “He was the one in charge on that rib and was responsible, the evidence suggests, for getting it across the channel.”
Mr Xhekaliu was arrested by police at the harbour and interviewed the next day.
Officers also seized his phone and sent it for examination, the court heard.
A ticket stub found in his possession indicated he had travelled from the Albanian capital of Tirana to Brussels just a few days before his arrest at the harbour, the jury were told.
In addition, the prosecution said they believe Mr Xhekaliu had been living in the UK for ‘some time’ before the incident.
Mr Brocklehurst said: “The phone that was taken by the NCA officers and forensically examined.
“Officers discovered screenshots. These showed were ribs for sale, dated October 3 and October 5, 2017.
“The prosecution have no direct evidence that the defendant himself went out and bought the [rib in question].”
But he added: “It is a remarkable coincidence that he has an interest in ribs for sale and is then found on one in interesting circumstances in the channel.”
Since their rescue all of the Albanian nationals, apart from Mr Xhekaliu have either been deported or are in the process of making asylum applications, the court heard.
Mr Xhekaliu faces a single charge of making and carrying out or management to facilitate the entry into the UK of unlawful individuals. He has pleaded not guilty.
The trial continues.