The Hague: European police forces on Thursday smashed a major organised crime gang trying to smuggle illegal immigrants into Britain, arresting 26 people during a series of coordinated raids in different countries.
The gang "is believed to have transported migrants in specially-adapted vehicles, passing through various EU member states, with the UK as final destination," Europol said in a statement.
The ring-leader of the group, which has been under surveillance since January, was said to be a wheelchair-using "disabled man from Afghanistan who was based in the UK", it added.
In one case a white mini-van was stopped, and crow-barred open to reveal a specially-adapted back area equipped with rough narrow, wooden benches for people to sit on.
The group had also "modified the back door of the storage area of vehicles, mostly minivans, thus creating a double door in which the migrants were hiding during travel", Europol said.
Five nations -- Belgium, Bulgaria, France, the Netherlands and Britain -- took part in the operations, with police carrying out a total of 42 searches.
Eleven arrests were made in 20 raids in British cities, including London and Birmingham, on "suspicion of assisting illegal immigration", the UK's Home Office said in a statement.
"People smuggling is a cruel and dangerous trade in which often vulnerable individuals are treated as commodities," said Steve Dann, Home Office director of criminal and financial investigation.
"Many are passed into the hands of other crime gangs who would seek to exploit them for modern slavery purposes - including labour exploitation and the illicit sex trade."
In Belgium, eight people were arrested during 13 raids in an "investigation into a suspected, very well-organised criminal organisation which was attempting to move people from Syria and Afghanistan into Britain, mainly via eastern Europe", Belgian prosecutors said.
Since the surveillance was launched in January it is believed about 50 bids to illegally transport people across borders were intercepted, with about 400 people rescued, they added in a statement.
There were also searches on Thursday in Bulgaria leading to seven arrests.
"The case highlights how easily one criminal can lead a huge, pan-EU network from one EU member state," said Robert Crepinko , head of Europol's migrant smuggling centre.