Tax-payer funded Freedom to Stay was purportedly set up to help vulnerable Albanian immigrants navigate the benefits system.
Instead, it was charging illegal immigrants around £1,000 each as part of the human trafficking chain from Albania, according to police.
The charity was run by founder Pranvera Smith, 47, and her partner Flamur Daka, 44, who were yesterday sentenced to five years four months imprisonment and four years respectively, according to West Midlands Police.
Investigations revealed the charity had “charged” more than 130 people for their services in the first six months of 2020 alone, taking in £130,000.
Smith went by the moniker “La Nonna,” which means in Albanian mafia “Grandmother.”
“Smith liked to describe herself as ‘La Nonna’ to ensure people knew she wasn’t a person to be messed with,” said Detective Chief Inspector Will Henley of the regional organized crime unit in a statement. “If they couldn’t pay up she would withhold important personal and immigration documents.”
Both Smith and Daka pleaded guilty to conspiracy to breach UK immigration law.
Smith also pleaded guilty to fraud by false representation. According to the police, Freedom to Stay had fraudulently claimed a £10,000 Big Lottery Fund grant.
“Smith and Daka positioned themselves as big-hearted charitable people who wanted to help very vulnerable people,” said Henley. “In reality, they were traffickers and abusers. They knew migrants would be paying up to £10,000 to traffickers to gain illegal entry into the UK—and Smith would then charge each asylum seeker upwards of £1,000 for their ‘charity’ services.”
To pay their “fees,” many worked in car washes for less than legal wages. Others wound up working in illegal cannabis farms from which they were later rescued, as Smith and Daka “turned a blind eye,” say police.
As part of the investigation, police worked with Belgian authorities, discovering that the couple were trafficking people from Albania in trucks via Ghent.
“Once their trafficking racket was established we believe they intended to smuggle up to 30 people a month into the UK,” said Henley.
The couple bought properties and a restaurant in Albania and Turkey.
“We have restrained these properties pending a Proceeds of Crime Investigation,” said Henley. “It’s important we show that crime doesn’t pay.
Smith also pleaded guilty to charges of supplying cannabis after officers recovered a kilo of the drug as part of the investigation.
Daka pleaded guilty to charges of supplying cocaine.