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English Channel migrant smuggling ring dismantled, say police

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A Border Force vessel brings a group of people thought to be migrants into the port city of Dover, England, from small boats, Saturday Aug. 8, 2020.
A Border Force vessel brings a group of people thought to be migrants into the port city of Dover, England, from small boats, Saturday Aug. 8, 2020.   -   Copyright  Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Photo
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Twelve people have been arrested for smuggling migrants across the English Channel, European authorities said in a statement.

The arrests followed a four-nation police operation over the course of two days to dismantle a criminal network of smugglers.

The operation saw the seizure of 12 vehicles, 10 rubber boats and engines, 152 life jackets, a caravan, a boat trailer, jewellery, about €48,000 in cash, documents and mobile devices, the European Union's criminal justice cooperation agency, Eurojust, said in a statement.

Most of the 12 suspects are Iranian nationals who live in the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom.

Authorities say there has been an increase in dangerous small boats crossing the English Channel from France to the UK, with thousands of crossings and increased interceptions from France.

The smugglers made huge profits off of the operation, charging an average of €3,000 per person for the crossings.

"It is clear that organised crime groups, specifically in cases of illegal migration and human smuggling, are working on an international level," said Frank Demeester, who works in the human smuggling department of the public prosecutor’s office in West-Flanders.

"They are not bothered concerned by the boundaries between the different countries. That is why the four countries around the North Sea have to must work closely together to fight this type of criminality," he added in a statement.

The joint investigation team with authorities from Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom was created in September following closer cooperation between the four nations from June.

The arrests come as the UK and France have agreed to increase efforts to stop migrants from crossing the Channel - a dangerous stretch of water that is also home to many shipping lanes.

The UK, in particular, has sought to return migrants crossing the Channel to the European continent, stating that many are coming from France, which is already a safe country.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called crossing the Channel a "bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do", stating that "cruel and criminal gangs" were taking advantage of those who are vulnerable.

London has also blamed asylum laws for preventing more returns to the continent. For the moment, the UK continues to follow EU law, something that will change after the post-Brexit transition period.

The European Commission, meanwhile, recently unveiled a new pact on migration that will allow its member states to be "flexible" in their contributions to migration -- potentially sponsoring migrant deportations instead of relocating asylum-seekers within their countries.

European officials said the new pact would focus on returning migrants who do not qualify for asylum and combatting migrant smuggling.