An Albanian trafficker tried to cross the Channel in freezing conditions with eight people in a dinghy, in an attempt to bring the seven men and one woman to the UK illegally, sources said.
Lewes Crown Court heard 40-year-old Afrim Xhekaliu, who traveled to Albania from Gatwick before heading to Brussels and France to board the rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) to return to the UK.
All nine people on board of the boat had either Albanian passports or ID cards. Xhekaliu was the only one wearing a wetsuit when they were found off the Sussex coast, the court said.
The prosecutor Kelly Brocklehurst told the jury he was the only one who was dry, fit and healthy when the boat was picked up by the RNLI following an air and sea search on January 31 this year.
Brocklehurst went on to say “When they were rescued, they did not have any documentation and, with the exception of the defendant, they have all been deported or are claiming asylum.”
On January 31, there were a number of 999 calls made from that boat. The RNLI lifeboat from Dungeness was directed to a spot in the Channel after the RHIB was spotted by a search and rescue helicopter.
“It was apparent the defendant was one of two people wearing life jackets and he was the only one wearing a wetsuit,” Brocklehurst added, further saying “He changed out of his wetsuit into dry clothing which he had brought with him. The others were soaked to the skin and hypothermic.”
When Xhekaliu was arrested, he was told that the NCA suspected him of bringing people into the UK illegally. However, he denied the accusation and said: “but I was in the boat with them.”
The Crown said the Albanian, who has been living in Barnet, London, with his partner for several years, was not simply another passenger on the boat. Messages and pictures found on his mobile phone show he was trying to buy a RHIB and planned the trip across the Channel.
According to the source, detectives found plane tickets from London to Tirana and the Albanian capital to Brussels in the days before the boat left France. Screenshots on the phone showed RHIBs for sale on Facebook or some such and it appears he passed these on to another number stored on his phone on October 3 and 5, 2017.
“In a text message to another man, the defendant wrote: ‘a trip is planned soon’.” Mr Brocklehurst pointed out that “These messages outline, he was not just simply a passenger but a facilitator.”