A charity boss has been jailed for using the asylum organisation she founded as a front to try and bring illegal immigrants into the UK and force them to work on cannabis farms.
Mother-of-three Pranvera Smith, 47, who set up Freedom to Stay in 2014, previously landed a £10,000 lottery grant for her ‘work’, Birmingham Crown Court heard on Thursday.
She claimed the organisation helped new-arrived Albanian asylum seekers to find their feet by applying for benefits and care money as well as applications to stay in the UK.
However, she is thought to have made at least £130,000 from migrants she exploited by charging them with a ‘price list’ of services including securing benefits, housing and lodging asylum applications.
She also turned a blind eye to the fact many of her clients were being used as indentured workers by the criminal gangs who had brought them to the UK.
Mother-of-three Pranvera Smith (left), 47, who set up Freedom to Stay in 2014, previously landed a £10,000 lottery grant for her ‘work’, Birmingham Crown Court heard on Thursday
Some were working to repay £10,000-£15,000 in fees to crooks, working at car washes or cannabis farms, where they also risked being attacked and beaten up by rival criminal operations, said prosecutors.
But in November last year, Smith and another man, 44-year-old Flamur Daka, sought to become people traffickers themselves, conspiring to bring ‘large numbers’ of migrants across the Channel in the backs of trucks, said Brett Weaver, prosecuting.
Both admitted conspiring to breach immigration law, at a previous court hearing in August.
The offending spanned eight months to July 2020, when the pair were arrested after a smuggling run which ended with a 21-year-old migrant being rescued from a truck by Belgian police in the port of Ghent.
Judge Kristina Montgomery QC, sentencing, said Smith’s charity had been founded ‘legitimately’, but ‘strayed’ when, in November 2019, the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner formally reprimanded Smith for advising migrants, when not authorised.
Opening the case, the Crown’s barrister Mr Weaver said: ‘This was sophisticated criminal activity on the part of Smith.
Smith claimed the organisation (pictured boarded up on Bearwood High Street, Birmingham) helped new-arrived Albanian asylum seekers to find their feet by applying for benefits and care money as well as applications to stay in the UK
‘It involved insight and knowledge but also contact with the criminal underworld, particularly the Albanian criminal underworld.
‘And it was concealed beneath the veneer of a charity organisation.’
He added that Daka, who had an on/off-relationship with Smith, was also ‘a willing participant’ to the conspiracy to bring migrants into the UK illegally.
Smith, who has lived in the UK for 26 years but is originally from Albania, had also earlier pleaded guilty to supplying 1kg of cannabis to – unbeknown to her – an undercover police officer.
Daka, a hospital porter in Dudley, previously admitted a charge of supplying class A drugs, after passing a covert officer 0.15 milligrams of cocaine.
The pair were caught after an undercover sting operation by West Midlands Police regional organised crime unit (Rocu), in which two officers worked covertly for months, befriending the pair at the charity’s office in Hagley Road, Birmingham.
When the offices were raided, police found a client list of 180 people – 130 of them from 2020 – together with dozens of personnel files including original identity documents, like birth certificates.
When the offices were raided, police found a client list of 180 people – 130 of them from 2020 – together with dozens of personnel files including original identity documents, like birth certificates
They were found alongside a price list headed ‘charges’, in which services they claimed to offer for free, including securing benefits and asylum applications, were priced at between £1,000 to £4,000.
Officers also raided premises in Bearwood High Street, West Midlands, which Smith had spent £30,000 converting into a Mediterranean restaurant, while she also owned property in Turkey’s Dalaman resort.
HMRC records showed Smith had never paid a penny in income tax, despite also claiming child tax credits.
Jailing Smith for five years and four months and Daka for four years, Judge Montgomery said: ‘I accept your charity was at first a legitimate one but it had strayed.
‘Thereafter, my view is what took over was financial motivation.
‘By giving up what you had created, you were going to lose huge amounts of money.
‘The way to continue to operate and therefore continue to charge and be provided with huge amounts of money was to diversify and bring in others who had been brought into the country and required your services immediately.’
She added: ‘These are offences that require deterrence.
‘They require people to know the risks taken in people trafficking are not acceptable and that those who place the vulnerable and desperate in a position which is so inherently risky for financial reward must then themselves pay the price.’
Smith was also handed six months for supplying cannabis and Daka was given the same tariff for supplying cocaine, to be served concurrently.
Both were told they would serve half their jail-term before being released on licence.