Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) said on Wednesday that 72 people have been arrested after a fishing boat was intercepted off the eastern coast of England, triggering a people-smuggling investigation.
The agency, which focuses on fighting organised crime, intercepted a 30-metre boat off the coast of Great Yarmouth in East Anglia on Tuesday evening after it sailed from the Ostend area of Belgium.
The three crew members, a Latvian national and two Ukrainian nationals were arrested on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration. The 69 others, all Albanian nationals, were arrested on suspicion of breaking immigration rules.
The Home Office said in an emailed statement that the arrests were made in a multi law enforcement collaboration that was the “biggest immigration operation in recent years.”
“Despite attempts to duck UK surveillance,” it said, “Border Force cutters Searcher and Vigilant intercepted the boat and took it under control off the coast of Suffolk late on the evening of 17 November.”
The boat was then escorted in the early hours of the morning on Nov. 18 to Harwich harbour after which NCA was to interview both the three suspected people-smugglers and the 69 suspected illegal immigrants.
The home office said that upwards of 250 officers took part in the operation involving police helicopters and “coastguard aerial assets.”
Forces that supported the NCA worked “through the night” to secure the safe arrival of the boat at Harwich were Essex Police, Border Force, and Immigration Enforcement, the Home office said.
Britain has been cracking down hard on illegal people smuggling in recent months.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said in an emailed statement that she had been “clear” that she will use “every arm of the law” to thwart the “ruthless gangs” involved.
She said the operation was “a big win” in the fight against organised criminality and Britain would make no bones about expelling illegal immigrants.
“We are unapologetically returning migrants who have no right to stay in the UK to safe countries with flights every week and will do whatever we can to make this [illegal] route unviable,” she said.
The NCA echoed Patel’s commitment to combatting illegal migration across Britain’s borders.
“This was clearly a significant incident and a significant attempt to breach the UK’s border controls,” said Craig Naylor, NCA Deputy Director of Investigations in an emailed statement.
“We are determined to do all we can to disrupt and dismantle people-smuggling networks and prevent them from exploiting migrants for profit.”
The 72 arrests follow many cases of legal action against people smugglers that have been taking place on both sides of the English Channel.
In late October on the French side a 37-year-old Iranian man, one of the 22 people rescued from the migrant boat that sank off the French coast was indicted on manslaughter charges after migrants including a baby drowned.
Also in late October, two others were jailed in England for 16 months apiece after each steered a rigid-hulled inflatable boat of migrants across the 21-mile expanse of sea that is the busiest shipping lane in the world.
The Home office said that Belgian authorities are supporting the NCA in its ongoing investigations.
Reuters contributed to this report.