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Drivers accused of transporting migrants for people smuggling kingpin arrested in Romania

Two lorry drivers who are accused of smuggling migrants for a London-based organised crime group have been arrested in Romania and now face extradition back to the UK as part of a National Crime Agency investigation.

Nicolae Toma, 43, from Arad in Romania is accused of attempting to smuggle nine migrants out of the UK in September 2020.

At the time he was allowed to proceed once the migrants had been removed from his lorry, but the NCA were later able to link him to the crime group and he was arrested on his return to the UK the following June.

After being released under investigation he never returned to be charged and was listed as wanted.

Vasile Balcovei, 49, from Tulcea in Romania is suspected of having dropped two migrants he had smuggled into the UK at Thurrock Services in Essex in February 2021.

The drop-off was witnessed by a member of the public, and the two migrants were picked up by a mini-cab which was being tracked by the NCA.

Officers were later able to trace Balcovei’s lorry back to the scene, but by that time he had left the country.

NCA investigators suspect both men were working for an organised crime group headed by Md Mokter Hossain, 54, from Woodford Green.

Hossain, who was the main subject of an NCA investigation codenamed Operation Symbolry, was jailed for 10-and-a-half years at Snaresbrook Crown Court in June for directing a network which used complicit lorry drivers to move people in both directions across the Channel.

Toma and Balcovei were arrested by Romanian police on 2 September on the basis of warrants issued by the UK.

Balcovei was extradited back to the UK today (Tuesday 12 September) and will appear before Westminster Magistrates Court.

Toma remains in custody in Romania.

NCA senior investigating officer Chris Hill said:

“Engaging complicit lorry drivers was critical to Hossain’s people smuggling business model.

“The arrest of these men demonstrates the international reach of the NCA, and our determination to do all we can to track down and bring to justice those we suspect of being involved in people smuggling.

“Tackling organised immigration crime remains a priority for the NCA.”

Operation Symbolry has already seen five lorry drivers with links to the OCG convicted of people smuggling offences.

Another five mini-cab drivers are due to stand trial in January 2024 for offences linked to the network.

Anyone with information about this type of illegal activity, particularly lorry drivers who can be approached by organised criminals, should contact the police on 101 or the charity Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.

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