A MAJOR police operation has seen raids and arrests across the North-East targeting a criminal gang suspected of smuggling hundreds of migrants into the UK in the back of lorries.

Some 350 officers took part in a series of morning raids in the Cleveland Police force area, with further addresses targeted by Northumbria, Sussex and Metropolitan forces.

The year-long investigation, in association with police in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, formed one of the largest National Crime Agency (NCA) led operations ever.

Around 20 addresses were searched by the NCA following a briefing at Cleveland Police’s HQ in Middlesbrough when two principal suspects were identified as being involved in bringing migrants into the UK in lorries for money.

The gang operating the suspected smuggling network are believed to be charging up to £10,000 per head to traffic mainly Iraqi-Kurds over the Channel by using drivers recruited on Teesside and abroad.

Officers arrested a 42-year-old from a terraced house in Devonshire Road, Linthorpe, Middlesbrough. Another man was arrested from a detached property in Applecross Grove, in Wynyard, near Billingham.

They were two of 16 people arrested in the Cleveland Police area. There were a further two arrests in London, two in Sussex and one in the Northumbria area.

The Northern Echo:

Senior Investigating Officer Mark Spoors said the suspects were arrested on suspicion of immigration offences and linked to money laundering.

Spot checks were carried out on a number of hand car washes to check them for health and safety, tax and immigration compliance.

SIO Spoors said: “The crime group have used complicit lorry drivers running from France into the UK.”

Speaking to The Northern Echo, he added that the lengthy investigation and raids had been a success.

“Those individuals have all been arrested for immigration offending and linked money laundering and they’ll be questioned about that,” said SIO Spoors.

“The investigation has been NCA-led for around 12 months and we’ve working in collaboration with the French, the Dutch and Belgian authorities.

“Predominantly we’ve been working with Immigration Enforcement and HMRC in the UK and we think today is a significant disruption within the UK.

“We went out to arrest 21 and we’ve managed to arrest 21.

“Enquiries will continue throughout the day and there are multiple house searches ongoing, so we’re hoping for a good result off the back of it.”

Over the past year the NCA’s officers, in partnership with Immigration Enforcement, Border Force and European agencies, have stopped several drivers and safeguarded migrants found on board their vehicles.

Cleveland Police temporary Superintendent Sharon Cooney said: “These crimes are not confined to our local towns and communities; they are national and international and require the highest level of response.

“We will continue to work with our communities and regional and national policing colleagues to ensure that people smuggling, the exploitation of the most vulnerable by the most ruthless, will not be accepted.”

The action is part of Project Invigor, an NCA-led campaign to tackle organised immigration.