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Pair found guilty of using plane to smuggle migrants to Essex from France

Two Albanian nationals who used a plane to illegally transport economic migrants from northern France to an aerodrome in Essex have been found guilty of people smuggling.

Myrteza Hilaj, 50, and Kreshnik Kadena, 37, both of Leyton, east London, were found guilty on Friday at Southwark Crown Court of facilitating the commission of a breach of immigration law.

The convictions followed an eight-year investigation by the National Crime Agency (NCA), codenamed Operation Micropus, into an Albanian organised crime group involved in facilitating illegal migration, money laundering, drug trafficking and the supply of counterfeit documents.

The NCA said at least nine journeys of Albanian economic migrants in 2016 and 2017 were “linked back mainly to Hilaj” – three involving light aircraft and others with migrants getting in the back of lorries.

Myrteza Hilaj court case
Albanian national Myrteza Hilaj, 50, was found guilty of people smuggling (NCA/PA)

Kadena acted as his assistant and was primarily involved in smuggling migrants using the light aircraft.

The group’s pilot would take off from North Weald Airfield in Epping Forest, Essex, and fly to Le Touquet airport on the coast of northern France to collect three to four migrants to smuggle into the UK on each trip.

The pilot would then fly to Stapleford Aerodrome, also in Epping Forest, where the migrants would leave the plane and be collected by Kadena.

The Albanian migrants would pay “up to £10,000” for transit into the UK and then “a few hundred pounds extra” for fake documents, the NCA said.

NCA senior investigating officer Saju Sasikumar said Hilaj acted as a “travel agent” for the migrants.

Mr Sasikumar told a media briefing: “He was putting people in the right places at the right time and contacting the right people to get them to where they needed to be.”

He added that the case was “one of the few examples of light aircraft being used” by people smuggling gangs.

Mr Sasikumar added: “This investigation has dismantled an organised crime group who not only facilitated illegal migration but provided a complete service to those they helped into the country, ensuring they could gain work and access services illegally.

“Today’s convictions may mark the end of this particular operation but our work to tackle the threat from organised immigration crime is only increasing.”

After a police interception in France on July 17 2017, the NCA said Hilaj and Kadena, both in the UK legally, were seen having a “fallout meeting at a local pub”. During the trial Kadena had suggested this was instead his “birthday drinks”.

Hilaj, who came to the UK in the 1990s and previously worked as a restaurant owner and security guard, supplied the migrants with fake documents.

A false identity counterfeiting group provided Hilaj with many of these – including five individuals who produced “tens of thousands” of such documents at a facility in Stratford for use in banking fraud.

He also sourced documents from a man operating a passport factory out of his loft in Battersea, London.

Hilaj and Kadena were arrested on July 26 2017 at their home addresses by the NCA.

Officers discovered messages on one of Hilaj’s phones in which he had corrected typing errors on false documents, as well as online searches regarding the aircraft interdiction on July 17.

The two men are due to be sentenced at Southwark Crown Court on May 17.

British pilot David Green and facilitator Edward Buckley were jailed in France in 2017 for the light aircraft operation which ran from June to July in 2017.

The operation by the NCA involved a total of 27 arrests with 11 convictions in the UK, and nine convictions overseas.

The NCA said the operation that led to the arrests of the men ensured the “safeguarding of over 50 migrants” who were prevented from coming to the UK via dangerous means.

It also involved the closure of four forgery factories, with confiscation orders of just under £1 million being issued.

The wider investigation by the NCA, not linked directly to Hilaj or Kadena, involved the seizure of four tonnes of cannabis and 30 kilos of cocaine.