Arrests, an extradition and appeal for 'The Skorpion' week of action against people smugglers



A Romanian man who was wanted by the National Crime Agency (NCA) after failing to show up at court has been arrested and extradited back to the UK to face trial.

Vasile Costache, aged 54, previously of Hounslow in London, was initially detained by the NCA in September 2021 in connection with a conspiracy to smuggle 17 men, women and children into the UK in the back of a van.

It followed an operation in June 2019 which saw a British-registered Mercedes van intercepted by Dutch police, who were working with the NCA.

A group of Afghan migrants had been loaded on board near Breda in the Netherlands, and the vehicle was travelling towards the Hook of Holland to get a ferry to the UK when it was stopped.

Costache, who also uses the name Vasile Matei, is alleged to have worked with a number of other people to organise the attempt.

He was charged with conspiring to facilitate illegal immigration and granted bail, but he failed to turn up to a court hearing in Croydon in June this year, so a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Last month Costache was located and detained by Romanian police in the town of Ploiesti, north of Bucharest, where he lived.

He was returned back to the UK on Monday 14 November and appeared before Westminster Magistrates on Tuesday, where he was remanded in custody to appear before Croydon Crown Court on 25 November.

NCA senior investigating officer Chris Hill said: “Once again the NCA has been able to demonstrate our international reach.

“Through working with partners in Romania we were able to locate Costache and ensure his return to the UK to face the courts.”

Costache is one of 16 people due to stand trial in January 2023, following a wider NCA investigation into money laundering and organised immigration crime. Two other individuals have pleaded guilty.

Also on Monday four Albanian nationals were arrested in connection with a beach landing reported in St Margaret’s Bay in Kent.

Two men suspected of facilitating the beach landing of a small boat were arrested and charged with conspiracy to facilitate illegal entry, less than 24 hours after authorities were notified of the incident.

The pair were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to facilitate illegal entry after they drove off with two migrants that landed illegally.

Both are suspected of being members of an organised crime group operating in the UK.

A further two men were arrested on Tuesday morning for arrival to the UK without legal entry clearance.

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said: “These arrests show our clear determination to crack down swiftly on anyone who tries to evade capture and enter our country illegally.

“Thanks to the expert work of our teams, we will continue to remain vigilant to illegal activity like this and bring those responsible to justice.”

There have been major developments in the fight against people smugglers in the past week.

The NCA also announced its investigators are working with partners in Belgium to help track down the head of an organised crime group that attempted to smuggle more than 100 migrants to the UK in small boats and lorries.

Iraqi national Barzan Kamal Majeed, nicknamed “Scorpion” (top image) after his WhatsApp avatar, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for people smuggling offences in his absence at a court in Bruges last month.

The 36-year-old, formerly of Nottingham, was also fined 968,000 Euros.

A warrant has been issued for his arrest, and investigators on both sides of the channel are now appealing for information regarding his whereabouts.

Majeed moved to the UK in 2013 and lived in the Hucknall area of Nottingham, where he is understood to still have connections. He was deported from the UK in 2015 to the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq.

The Belgian prosecution followed a joint investigation involving the NCA, Belgian, Dutch and French law enforcement into 31 separate attempts to smuggle migrants into the UK between July 2018 and November 2019 using small boats, lorries and shipping containers.

Many of the migrants encountered had Majeed’s number stored in their mobile phone under the name “Scorpion”.

The investigation had already resulted in the UK conviction of fellow crime group member Nzar Jabar Mohamad, 35, last year.

Mohamad was jailed for 10 years at Hull Crown Court in October 2021 after admitting attempting to bring 21 migrants to the UK using lorries and small boats. He also boasted of smuggling hundreds of women using the same method.

A further 23 people were charged by the Belgian authorities this year, including three who were arrested in the UK by the NCA and extradited to Belgium.

Seventeen were convicted and jailed for a total of 32 years during the same hearing as Majeed’s. Six were given suspended prison sentences.

Mohamad was also given an additional two-year sentence and fined 272,000 Euros by the Belgian court.

NCA Branch Commander Martin Clarke said: “These convictions represent the destruction of the UK and international arms of this organised crime group, which preyed on the desperation of migrants seeking to cross the channel.

“The information we gathered following Mohamad’s arrest was crucial to the success of the Belgian investigation.

“It shows that organised immigration crime networks usually cross international boundaries, meaning international cooperation is essential to tackling them.

“I would appeal to anyone, anywhere, who has information about where Barzan Kamal Majeed might be to contact us or the Belgian authorities immediately.

“Although he was sentenced in his absence, true justice will only be achieved when he is back on Belgian soil to serve his jail term.”

Anyone with information about Majeed’s whereabouts can contact the NCA control centre on 0370 496 7622.

A further trial was due to commence in Belgium on Wednesday 9 November relating to seven Romanian HGV drivers who were allegedly attached to the crime group.

The same day (November 9) two men suspected of facilitating small boats crossings were arrested as part of a major international operation to curb immigration crime.

Home Office Immigration Enforcement officers, working in partnership with the Metropolitan Police, arrested two London-based suspects in a predawn raid on behalf of the Belgian authorities.

The men, aged 29 and 42, were arrested on suspicion of assisting unlawful immigration and were taken into police custody. Both are suspected of being members of an organised crime group operating between Belgium, France and the UK.

This operation was overseen by Europol, which also supported the development of the investigation. A linked suspect was arrested in France.

Metropolitan Police officers are now beginning extradition proceedings for both suspects as part of a wider investigation.

Assistant Director, Immigration Enforcement Criminal & Financial Investigations, Stephen Blackwell, said:

“The arrests would not have been possible without strong cooperation with our UK and European partners.

“We are committed to disrupting the activity of people smugglers and will continue to work hard with our law enforcement partners across Europe to bring them to justice.”

On Monday (November 14) Home Secretary Suella Braverman (above) finalised arrangements with her French counterpart the French Interior Minister today for a 40 per cent increase in number of UK-funded officers patrolling French beaches.

UK officers are also to be embedded in French-led control rooms and on the ground with counterparts for the first time to support coordination and information sharing.

Mrs Braverman said: “We must do everything we can to stop people making these dangerous journeys and crack down on the criminal gangs. This is a global challenge requiring global solutions, and it is in the interests of both the UK and French governments to work together to solve this complex problem.

“There are no quick fixes, but this new arrangement will mean we can significantly increase the number of French gendarmes patrolling the beaches in northern France and ensure UK and French officers are working hand in hand to stop the people smugglers.”