The UK’s National Crime Agency says Albanian gangs are bringing illegal immigrants across the English Channel, coaching them on what to say to the UK Border Force, and then putting them to work in cannabis farms.
Ged McCann, a senior NCA intelligence manager, told a briefing of journalists on Tuesday that Albanian gangs were working with Iraqi Kurd people-trafficking syndicates and were “effectively bringing in the labour force for the cannabis grows.”
McCann said, “Many individuals that are arrested in cannabis grows arrived in the country a matter of days before on small boats.”
He said Albanians had wrested control of the cannabis farm industry from Vietnamese gangs and he said many of the illegal immigrants who were put to work in the cannabis farms were in “debt bondage” to criminal gangs.
Steve Brocklesby, an NCA intelligence manager, said there was “blatant manipulation” of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which was introduced to help victims of trafficking and modern slavery.
Brocklesby said, “We do know, anecdotally, speaking to police forces around the country, that if an Albanian illegal migrant is arrested in a cannabis grow, then often the first thing they do is claim to be a victim of trafficking.”
“It is, in many ways, blatant manipulation and it is something we believe from Albania is instilled in them before they actually arrive in the UK,” he added.
In October, Dan O’Mahoney, the Home Office’s clandestine threat commander, said many Albanian illegal immigrants were “gaming the system” by using the NRM.
O’Mahoney said they “will typically put them in a hotel for a couple of days, and then they’ll disappear, work illegally in the UK for maybe six months, maybe a year, send the money home, and then they’ll go back to Albania.”
In December 2021 Xhovan Pepaj, 25, was murdered when a rival gang allegedly tried to steal cannabis being grown at a property in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
Thirteen people have been charged with murder, manslaughter, or conspiracy to commit robbery and await trial.
Brocklesby said: “Albanian OCGs [organised crime groups] in the UK, their main objective when they make money is to get it out of the country as soon as possible. So, they will smuggle it out of the UK into Albania in whatever form it comes. The estimates are that hundreds of millions of pounds UK sterling is leaving the UK and ending up in Albania, where it then gets semi-legitimised either into the banking system or to pay for construction work.”
Flood of Criminal Cash Flowing Out of the UK
He said the NCA estimated there had been a 20 percent increase in criminal cash leaving the UK in the last five years.
Brocklesby added: “We can expect to see an increasing use of crypto and other less regulated investments in the UK, as well as direct investments into the UK, in the coming years.”
The NCA’s Deputy Director of Threat Leadership, Andrea Wilson, said they were involved in 70 live investigations into organised immigration crime, and she said a “significant proportion” involved Albanian groups.
John Lucas, a journalist and author of “Albanian Mafia Wars: The Rise of Europe’s Deadliest Narcos,” said he was not surprised by the NCA’s comments and said: “They have historic links with Italian groups in the drugs trade in Western Europe, and have worked with Kurdish organisations in the past in the heroin trade. By and large, they do what they say they’re going to do, a very handy attribute if you’re looking for a reliable criminal partner.”
Gangs Have ‘Switched Cultivation of Cannabis From Albania to UK’
He told The Epoch Times: “The big development in the last few years has been the frequency at which Albanians are found running cannabis factories, seemingly having taken this over from the Vietnamese. Bear in mind, the two big earners for Albanians have always been cocaine, imported from Latin America, and cannabis, which they largely grew in Albania and shipped out. There’s been a crackdown on that in Albania, so they’ve simply shifted the base of cultivation.”
Lucas said: “These young men caught drug dealing or running cannabis farms claim to be victims themselves. But sometimes these same guys have been shown to be sending significant amounts of cash home, or posting on social media with photos of large sums of cash or flash cars, which somewhat undermines their claim.”
“What they often say is that they don’t have any choice because these gangs have their roots back home in Albania and are able to threaten their families, so even though they seem to be benefiting from crime, they still don’t really have a choice. From what I’ve seen, sentencing judges then have no choice but to impose more lenient sentences, which I guess is it what irks the NCA,” he added.
The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee was told in November that 12,000 Albanians—10,000 of them adult men—had crossed the Channel this year, compared with just 50 in 2020.
PA Media contributed to this report.