A people smuggler has today (Thursday, July 5) been jailed for six years for trying to sail eight other Albanians into the UK in an inflatable boat.
Afrim Xhekaliu, 41, made an emergency call to police in the early hours of January 31 this year as the rigid hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) he was sailing got lost in the freezing English Channel after setting off from France, said the National Crime Agency (NCA).
Xhekaliu, of Leicester Road, Barnet, north London, who was himself an illegal immigrant, flew from Gatwick Airport to Albania’s capital Tirana several days before and evidence from his mobile phone showed him setting up the smuggling attempt, said the NCA spokesperson.
The spokesperson said in one text message exchange he asks a contact: “We have the trip set for Saturday. I am in Albania.
“Would you have anyone wanting to come over there?”
His contact replied: “Yes mate. I will get them ready on Friday and let you know, hope many people.”
After Xhekaliu made the 999 call, a rescue crew from the RNLI (Royal Naval Lifeboat Institution) began a search but had little information to locate the position of Xhakaliu’s boat, which was called the Janhazel.
After searching for more than four hours, the RNLI eventually located the RHIB which was towed to Eastbourne’s Sovereign Harbour, said NCA.
There were nine people on board, eight men and one woman.
When rescued Xhekaliu standing by the RHIB’s controls.
He was one of just two people wearing life jackets and the only person wearing a wetsuit.
He was clearly prepared for the trip as he brought dry clothes in a waterproof bag – while the others on board were soaked and hypothermic. He also had £410 in cash and some foreign currency with a total value of about £512.
The nine were transferred to Border Force officers who arrested them and the National Crime Agency began investigating.
The agency said Xhekaliu gave a no-comment interview, but investigators established that he had lived in London for a few years but not long enough to claim asylum.
NCA officers searched his home and discovered a Greek ID card in Afrim Xhekaliu’s name.
Forensic examination of his mobile phone showed he had images of adverts selling RHIBs, said officers.
He was convicted today at Lewes Crown Court of facilitating illegal immigration and sentenced to six years.
Martin Grace, NCA senior investigating officer, said, “Afrim Xhekaliu was clearly an important part of an organised crime group smuggling people into the UK.
“He was ill-prepared to transport people across the Channel in the depths of winter and very dangerous conditions. His lack of maritime skill and experience placed the lives of those aboard in danger.
“Working with law enforcement partners, the National Crime Agency will keep pursuing criminals facilitating illegal immigration, take action to disrupt their activity and protect those vulnerable to exploitation.”
Paul Campbell, of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, said, “HM Coastguard received a call from a vessel in distress. The person who made the call only spoke a little English and was disorientated because of the challenging sea conditions.
“We knew there were a number of people on board and time was of the essence. Our experienced Coastguard officers identified a possible location, deploying both the search and rescue helicopter, together with colleagues from the RNLI and were able to carry out the rescue.
“HM Coastguard’s motto is to seek, to rescue and to save. We will continue to deliver a world-class search and rescue service and we will continue to work seamlessly with colleagues from law enforcement in supporting the challenges of illegal migration.”