Police have bought up small boats in a bid to curtail Channel migrant crossings, The Telegraph understands.
Officers have used the tactic as part of a series of operations to disrupt the supply of boats, the biggest expense for the people-smuggling gangs behind the record number of migrants crossing the Channel this year.
It is understood officers have bought the boats not only to deny the gangs access to them but also to push up prices and reduce supply in an attempt to break the traffickers’ commercial model.
"We have a number of tools and tactics available to us, but certainly consideration around disrupting the supply chain covers all areas including buying boats and other methods of disruption," said a source.
Dinghy prices can range from several hundred to thousands of pounds, but they are in such demand that the National Crime Agency (NCA) has uncovered networks of organised criminal gangs buying them in the UK before sending them to traffickers in France.
The NCA is now targeting operations on the bigger boats the gangs have started using to ship between 60 and 80 migrants across the Channel from launch points further down the coast of northern France.
It is a cat-and-mouse game in which the traffickers store the boats well away from the coast before transporting them late at night to inflate them on the beach, or even bury them in the sand for use at a later date.
"We’re doing some operational activity with our international partners around the larger boats to see what we can do in terms of disrupting some of the supply chain," said the source.
A view of one of two areas now being used at a warehouse facility in Dover, Kent, for boats used after being intercepted in the Channel
Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA
French police have seized and destroyed 500 boats this year, as well as preventing 8,000 migrants from setting sail – treble last year’s numbers.
More than 9,250 migrants have made the perilous Channel crossing this year, surpassing last year’s record total of 8,410. July has seen a record 3,349 arrivals in 112 boats, beating June’s high of 2,179 in 92 boats.
In a series of raids in the past six months, the NCA has smashed criminal rings in the UK supplying boats to traffickers, including one that had bought at least six vessels in Britain which had been moved to the continent. Three boats were recovered in the UK after being used to bring migrants across the Channel.
Members of another gang, arrested in April, were sourcing rigid hull inflatable boats from the UK. They were then being transported to the Netherlands for storage before being supplied to organised trafficking groups smuggling migrants from northern France and Belgium.
Jacque Beer, the NCA Regional Head of Investigation, said at the time: "In our view, those who supply them with boats knowing what they are going to be used for are equally as culpable in these criminal enterprises."
It prompted an alert earlier this year by the NCA to the UK maritime industry that organised crime groups may target them to obtain small boats for people-smugglers.
Warning signs included big offers of cash, unusual combinations of boats and equipment in one transaction, repeat purchases, lack of concern about the state of the boat, an urgency about settling the deal and online buyers picking it up in person without providing a fixed delivery address.
An NCA spokesman said: "The NCA has a number of investigations actively targeting groups involved in this type of criminality, or activity which facilitates it, for example through the supply of boats and engines or the laundering of profits.
"However, much of the criminality involved lies outside the UK, so we have built up our intelligence-sharing effort with law enforcement partners in France, Belgium and beyond. This includes having NCA officers based in those countries, sharing intelligence and working side by side on joint investigations."