Indian-origin people smugglers who organised the illegal entry into Britain of thousands of people from India via South Africa have been sentenced to imprisonment following an extensive investigation into illegal immigration.
The people smugglers forged or stole documents to bring Indian citizens illegally into Britain via South Africa, often on forged South African passports. Holders of South African passports can enter Britain as visitors for a period of six months.
The investigation, which began in September 1999 after an illegal passport-making factory was discovered under a staircase in a house in Leicester, was led by Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and spanned several countries.
Members of the people smuggling gang were sentenced to various periods of imprisonment at the Leicester Crown Court this week. The gang earned millions of pounds by their activities by charging nearly 8,000 pounds (about $15,500) per person to enter Britain illegally.
In some cases, after the Indian nationals were brought into Britain via South Africa, they were then facilitated to travel to Canada or the US through the collusion of a corrupt official at the Heathrow airport.
Sajid Bhikhi, 40, and Asif Bhikhi, 38, both of west London, and Soyab Patel, 25, of north London, were sentenced to five years in prison for conspiring to facilitate illegal entry into Britain.
Sikander Patel, 36, from Leicester, was jailed for three-and-a-half years for the same charge plus obtaining leave to remain in the country by deception and being in possession of a false South African passport.
Asif Patel, 32, from Bolton, will be sentenced at a later date after being found guilty of the same conspiracy. Sabbir Patel, 31, from Leicester, was jailed for two-and-a-half years.
Judge William Everard said: "This conspiracy involved a professional and sophisticated operation. It involved the obtaining of South African passports, first by obtaining South African identities by the corrupt officials in the South African equivalent of the Home Office."
"And when all those false identities had been obtained it enabled corrupt officials to produce South African passports which were entirely genuine in appearance but of course fraudulently issued."
He recommended the deportation of those defendants who had not yet secured British citizenship.
Trevor Pearce, SOCA's executive director, said: "This was an international conspiracy which required an international response and partnership between agencies was key to fully dismantling this lucrative organised criminal enterprise."
In many cases, the gang used forged, stolen or photo-substituted documents to get the unspecified number of mainly Indian nationals into Britain via South Africa. Once through customs at British airports, many of them were kept in safe houses in London until they found work or further accommodation in predominantly Asian areas, such as parts of Bolton, Blackburn, Preston or Leicester.
The gang members were also accused of being involved in the forgery of identification documents, visa scams, illegal working and credit card fraud.
The trial at the Leicester court was phase two of Operation Coptine, which was the latest in a string of inter-linked investigations spanning nearly 10 years. An earlier investigation into people smuggling was called Operation Mulleet, when two men, Yusuf Mewaswala and Harekrishna Patel, were convicted.
The network reportedly operated around two 'hubs' in India and South Africa. In all, some 40-plus 'principals' have been convicted as part of the investigations, said SOCA.