Published: 17:42, 27 February 2019
| Updated: 19:41, 27 February 2019
A gang of people traffickers who plotted to smuggle illegal immigrants across the English Channel in a speedboat were today jailed for a total of 27 years and seven months.
Thomas Mason, piloted a rigid-hulled inflatable boat containing four Vietnamese men into Walmer, Deal.
Although he was making a dangerous crossing on the world's business shipping lane in the middle of the night, the boat had no safety equipment, no flares, no torch and no radio.
Mason had a life jacket, but his human cargo did not, St Albans Crown Court heard.
What Mason and the other conspirators did not know was that their operation, as well as earlier failed attempts, were being recorded for several months by undercover police officers.
Mason and co-defendant Nazmi Velia had been involved in people smuggling in 2010.
Mason had been caught in France trying to smuggle a Sri Lanken man into the UK in the boot of his car.
Velia was jailed in the UK for seven years for smuggling Sri Lanken people through Kent ports in car boots and lorry trailers.
Mason, 36, of High Street, Eyeworth near Biggleswade, Hoa Thi Nguyen, 49, of Bisterne Avenue, Walthamstow, East London and her partner Chi Tan Huynh, 41, of Pickford's Wharf, Wharf Road, Hoxton, London were found guilty by a jury of conspiracy to facilitate the illegal entry of foreign nationals into the UK between April 1 and August 3 last year.
Four others: Velia, 32, of Park Street Lane, St Albans, Egert Kajaci, 35, of Turner Drive, Oxford, Erald Gapi, 27, of Marine Tower, Abinger Grove, Deptford and Wayne Lee ,47, of Grasmere Close, Watford, pleaded guilty to the same charge.
Mason, who ran a ventilation business, was jailed for eight years.
"People whose trust is abused by people smugglers and who are used as raw materials to turn a profit..." - prosecutor Wayne Cleaver
Nguyen was also jailed for eight years. Huynh was jailed for two years and six months.
Kosovo-born Velia, who had run a car wash and worked in a restaurant, was sentenced to five years and four months.
Lee, a window cleaner, was sentenced to two years.
Gapi, an Albanian who was working for an estate agent, was jailed for one year and nine months.
Kajaci, who was born in Albania, will be sentenced on March 18.
Prosecutor Wayne Cleaver said the boat had been bought for £2,100 by Mason and Velia in Exmouth last June.
It was taken to the Kent coast for test runs. There were also a number of unsuccessful attempts made by Mason to smuggle immigrants waiting on the Belgian and French coasts on June 3, July 13 and July 27.
Kajaci and Lee were waiting in vain in Kent on July 27 when Mason returned empty-handed.
On July 30, Velia and Mason fell out and he made it clear he wanted nothing further to do with Mason, who carried on with the conspiracy.
Mason was seen disappearing into the horizon in the boat at 5.45pm on August 2.
Mr Cleaver said shortly after 1am on August 3 police were on duty on the beach in Walmer when the boat arrived.
He said: "Four adults were seen walking from the sea and onto the beach having just been landing.
"The location of the landing was relatively inconspicuous to the extent there was little or no lighting, no people and on that stretch of coastline there were no buildings overlooking that part of the beach.
"The conspirators had found the perfect landing spot."
He said the four people left the beach and went into nearby Kingsdown Road.
They got into a silver Audi driven by Kajaci. They were stopped by the police in Granville Road, Walmer.
Mr Cleaver said Hoa Nguyen is a Vietnamese speaker with overseas contacts who co-ordinated the immigrants' journeys. Phone evidence revealed contact between her and Velia.
When police raided her home, they found an illegal immigrant called Tuan Nguyen, who is of no relation to Hoa Nguyen.
Phone evidence suggested he had arrived in the UK on May 28 or 29 last year.
Data retrieved from Hoa Nguyen's phones showed she had been sending overseas images of travel documents via WhatApp.
During this period Nguyen had visited Spain, Greece, Paris, Warsaw and Amsterdam.
Mr Cleaver said: "She was travelling about Europe. The prosecution say this is an enterprise with international dimensions.
"She was having direct contact with the people on the other side of the Channel who were 'herding' these people up."
She has a previous conviction for running two cannabis factories from residential premises.
Chi Tan Huynh was Hoa Nguyen's partner. When she travelled abroad he was an alternative point of contact for the gang. He made no comment to police questions.
Mr Cleaver told the jury of three women and nine men: "It is important to remember that ultimately this case is about real people.
"People whose trust is abused by people smugglers and who are used as raw materials to turn a profit."
One of the four men landed at Deal, Phuon Dan Tran, told the jury he held onto a rope in the bottom of the RHIB as it went across the Channel.
Speaking through an interpreter, the 23-year-old said two men sat at the back, one next to be boat pilot while he lay on the floor.
Mr Phuong said he was not given a life-jacket and that the pilot (Mason) of the boat, whose face was covered, did not speak to them.
Once on the beach at Deal he said he and the others were 'gestured' to go to a waiting Audi car.
Mr Phuong, who gave evidence behind a screen, told the jury his parents had fled their home in Vietnam when he was aged 10 or 11. He was left with neighbours, but they were facing religious persecution and last year he went to China.
He said: "I travelled across the jungle into China. I met a woman who spoke Vietnamese.
"She said she could get me some work. She said the work would be overseas. I would work for two to three years and I would be paid wages and be given better living conditions."
He said he was flown to Russia. Some 16 people were picked up in two minibuses and kept in a house in a forest before being taken to a country that he believed was France.
Asked by Mr Cleaver if they asked where they were going, he replied: "They (the traffickers) said not to ask questions and not to say anything."
In a statement a nautical enforcement officer Andrew Phillips said the boat lacked the proper safety and the lives of all those on board were place at risk.
Sentencing them, Judge Robert Winstanley said there had been an "expectation of considerable financial reward".
“Not only was the operation highly illegal, the group were putting the lives of the migrants at risk, forcing them to travel without lifejackets in a tiny boat across the Channel at night, for their own financial gain..." - Detective Inspector Trevor Davidson
He said that "personal gain came before all other considerations with the exposing of victims to a hazardous crossing".
The judge went onto to say there had been a "sophisticated system and mechanism that could bring countless illegal immigrants to the United Kingdom".
He added: "They could have done so were it not for efforts of police officers."
He said the Vietnamese people had not paid to be trafficking but would be working for free once they arrived.
He said: "This conspiracy stretches from the Far East to some oppressive workplace in the United Kingdom.
"All the way down the chain there are linked groups who play their part in the conspiracy."
Detective Inspector Trevor Davidson, who led the investigation for Eastern Region Special Operations Unit, said: “This was a complex investigation which came about following intelligence that an organised crime group were using a speedboat to bring migrants from Europe to England.
"We set up a surveillance operation and witnessed a number of failed attempts by the group to bring people across, before officers caught them landing in Walmer in August with four migrants.
“Not only was the operation highly illegal, the group were putting the lives of the migrants at risk, forcing them to travel without lifejackets in a tiny boat across the Channel at night, for their own financial gain.
“We are pleased that justice has been done today but we know that there is more to be done, which is why we continue to work closely with our Border Force colleagues to tackle organised immigration crime.”
“Crossing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in this type of craft is hugely dangerous, and it demonstrates the complete lack of regard for human life that criminals involved in people smuggling have..." - Steve Reynolds, INVIGOR
Gordon Scarratt, head of Border Force maritime, said: “Border Force’s collaboration with the East Region Special Operations Unit means that this people smuggling gang now face significant jail sentences.
“This case shows the effectiveness of the multi-agency approach taken to secure the UK’s border and territorial waters.
“Since these arrests, further action has been taken.
"In November Border Force, along with French colleagues, opened the joint coordination and information centre in Calais (CCIC) and has now tripled the number of cutters operating in the Channel, enhancing our ability to disrupt those engaged in people smuggling across the Channel.
“Border Force will continue to work with law enforcement colleagues, both in the UK and abroad, to ensure that people smugglers face the consequences of their crimes.”
Steve Reynolds, head of the NCA-led INVIGOR organised immigration crime task force, said: “Crossing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in this type of craft is hugely dangerous, and it demonstrates the complete lack of regard for human life that criminals involved in people smuggling have.
"To them, desperate migrants are a commodity to be profited from.
“Working with our partners in policing and Border Force we are determined to do everything in our power to bring people smugglers targeting the UK to justice, and this operation is an excellent example of that.
“The NCA-led organised immigration crime task force is also working in France, as well as upstream in Europe and further afield, to gather intelligence and disrupt the organised crime groups involved.”