Footage shows lifeboat saving nine illegal immigrants aboard inflatable boat taking in water

A tense video shows the moment a lifeboat crew saved nine illegal immigrants from an stricken inflatable boat in violently choppy swells in the English Channel.

People smuggler Afrim Xhekaliu was forced to call police after the boat he was sailing from France with eight other Albanians got lost in freezing waters as a 47mph south-westerly blew,

Albanian Xhekaliu, 40, had set off just a few hours earlier but would not say where he was.

A RNLI lifeboat aided by a coastguard helicopter searched for four hours before finding the tiny rigid hulled inflatable boat being battered by heavy swells.

The frightening rescue shows the inflatable boat bobbing up and down dangerously being swamped as the RNLI crew pulled the nine to safety and towed the boat to Eastbourne.

Alongside Xhekaliu were seven other men and one woman on board all wearing casual clothes.

Xhekaliu, who was living in North London illegally, brought dry clothes for himself but left others soaked and hypothermic.

He was one of just two people wearing a life jacket and the only person wearing a wet suit.

He also had £410 in cash and some foreign currency with a total value of about £512.

The nine were transferred to Border Force officers who arrested them and the National Crime Agency began investigating.

Xhekaliu gave a no-comment interview, but investigators established that he had lived in London for a few years but not long enough to claim asylum.

Xhekaliu, of Barnet, flew from Gatwick Airport to Albania’s capital Tirana several days before and evidence from his mobile phone showed him setting up the smuggling attempt.

In one text message exchange he asks a contact: “We have the trip set for Saturday. I am in Albania.

“Would you have anyone wanting to come over there?”

His contact replied: “Yes mate. I will get them ready on Friday and let you know, hope many people.”

The 41-year-old was jailed for six years today at Lewes Crown Court after a trial for facilitating illegal immigration.

Forensic examination of his mobile phone showed he had images of adverts selling the inflatable boats.

NCA officers searched his home and discovered a Greek ID card in Afrim Xhekaliu’s name.

Martin Grace, NCA senior investigating officer, said: “Afrim Xhekaliu was clearly an important part of an organised crime group smuggling people into the UK.

“He was ill-prepared to transport people across the Channel in the depths of winter and very dangerous conditions. His lack of maritime skill and experience placed the lives of those aboard in danger.

“Working with law enforcement partners, the National Crime Agency will keep pursuing criminals facilitating illegal immigration, take action to disrupt their activity and protect those vulnerable to exploitation.”

Paul Campbell, of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said: “HM Coastguard received a call from a vessel in distress. The person who made the call only spoke a little English and was disorientated because of the challenging sea conditions.

“We knew there were a number of people on board and time was of the essence. Our experienced Coastguard officers identified a possible location, deploying both the search and rescue helicopter, together with colleagues from the RNLI and were able to carry out the rescue.

“HM Coastguard’s motto is to seek, to rescue and to save. We will continue to deliver a world-class search and rescue service and we will continue to work seamlessly with colleagues from law enforcement in supporting the challenges of illegal migration.”

CPS prosecutor Margaret Adebayi said: “Afrim Xhekaliu denied being involved in organising for people to be smuggled into the UK illegally and claimed he was just a passenger on board the boat.

“Evidence put forward by the CPS, including text messages from Xhekaliu’s mobile phone which showed he was involved in facilitating unlawful entry for others, saw the jury find him guilty.”

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