Two British men have been jailed for more than four years after trying to smuggle 18 Albanian migrants into the UK on a boat that capsized off the Kent coast. Mark Stribling, 35, and former judo champion Robert Stilwell, 33, were intercepted a mile-and-a-half out to sea from the town of Dymchurch in May.
Immigration officials said the Albanians, including one woman and two children, were found in a "perilous" state without life jackets and could have died had rescuers not reached them in time. Each had paid €6,000 [£5,100, $6,700] to make the trip.
Their traffickers had both pleaded guilty to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration into the UK and were sentenced at Maidstone Crown Court on Friday (29 July).
Stilwell, of Stanley Close, Greenhithe, was sentenced to four years and four months while Stribling, of Hilltop Farm, Farningham, was given four years and eight months.
The court heard how their boat was found after a Border Force patrol crew received reports of suspicious activity relating to a small craft. Approaching with the coastguard, they then received a distress call from the same vessel and located the boat shortly before 1am on 29 May.
Video footage of the subsequent rescue showed those on board desperately trying to bail out water as it began to sink in choppy seas.
Stribling and Stilwell, who were wearing the only life jackets, initially told the authorities they had rescued the migrants while out fishing, but later admitted to being hired by others for £2,000 each to make the trip. Neil Guest, for Stribling, said the guilty pleas were entered on the basis they were "hired boatmen and not hierarchy".
Judge Jeremy Carey said tragedy had been avoided by a whisker, and that the pair showed "greed, recklessness and deceit in a desire to get easy money".
The migrants were taken to Dover and placed in custody after being rescued.
Dave Fairclough, who led the immigration enforcement investigation, said: "This was a particularly callous attempt to smuggle people into the UK. We often talk about people smugglers treating individuals as commodities. To my mind, that is exactly how Stilwell and Stribling regarded their passengers. They were not human beings, they were cargo, and as such did not merit life jackets for a dangerous night crossing, in poor conditions in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world."
It comes after the National Crime Agency (NCA) warned in April that criminal gangs were taking advantage of lapse security at less busy ports to smuggle migrants into the UK. It said people were also using rigid-hulled inflatable boats to get migrants across to shallow beaches, including in Kent.
The NCA is currently leading what it says is Europe's biggest anti-smuggling task force, named Project Invigor, to break up the criminal gangs behind illegal immigration.