Two criminals, who smuggled illegal immigrants via light aircraft into Stapleford Airport in Epping, have been convicted.

The convictions mark the end of an eight-year investigation undertaken by the National Crime Agency (NCA).

Leyton-based Myrteza Hilaj, 50, and Kreshnik Kadena, 37, organised at least nine journeys for migrants spanning 2016 and 2017.

Three flights brought these individuals to a small aerodrome in Essex.

Saju Sasikumar, NCA senior investigating officer, said: "This investigation has dismantled an organised crime group who not only facilitated illegal migration, but provided a complete service to those they helped into the country, ensuring they could gain work and access services illegally.

"Tackling organised immigration crime is a priority for the NCA and we work tirelessly to target people smugglers here in the UK and overseas, who risk lives and exploit others in the pursuit of profit.

"Today’s convictions may mark the end of this particular operation, but our work to tackle the threat from organised immigration crime is only increasing."

The convicted pair were members of an Albanian crime syndicate, with Hilaj acting as the UK coordinator.

The tactics used by the criminals saw them arrange for Albanian migrants to enter the UK for around £10,000 per person.

Epping Forest Guardian: The plane used to smuggle immigrants into EppingThe plane used to smuggle immigrants into Epping (Image: National Crime Agency)

Once the individuals arrived, Hilaj and Kadena would provide them with counterfeit passports, ID cards, and fake utility bills to settle them into the country.

Hilaj was in charge of the transport vehicles, ensuring they arrived and left from their designated locations without drawing attention.

He maintained contact with the migrants throughout their journey.

Kadena focused on the transportation of migrants via small aircraft.

On one occasion, July 9, 2017, he organised a flight smuggling an unknown number of migrants from Calais to Essex.

He then went to Stapleford airfield to collect the passengers.

An additional planned flight, due to take off on July 17, 2017, was thwarted by French police.

Four migrants, including one child, were safeguarded.

The UK pilot and facilitator, both in touch with Kadena, were arrested and convicted in France.

That same day, the NCA observed Hilaj and Kadena in a meeting at a pub.

Epping Forest Guardian:  NCA surveillance officers observed Hilaj and Kadena at a “fallout” meeting in a pub NCA surveillance officers observed Hilaj and Kadena at a “fallout” meeting in a pub (Image: National Crime Agency)

Their homes were raided and they were arrested on July 26, 2017.

Hilaj was found to possess numerous false identity documents, while Kadena had a small amount of cannabis and a security fob for the Stapleford Airfield gate.

The two were convicted by a Southwark Crown Court jury on Friday, March 15.

Their sentencing will take place at the same court on May 17, 2024.

The end of this investigation, codenamed Operation Micropus, marks a significant win in the fight against organised crime.

To date, Operation Micropus has resulted in 27 arrests, 11 UK convictions, and nine overseas.

It has safeguarded more than 50 migrants, closed four "forgery factories", confiscated £939,000, seized £5.46M from criminal profits, alongside four tonnes of cannabis and 30 kilos of cocaine.

Results from the operation also include the conviction of five people for providing fraudulent identity documents.

A group from Stratford, East London, ran a large-scale forgery factory, which produced the counterfeit documents used by the migrants brought in by Hilaj and Kadena.

More than 3,000 completed falsified documents were seized from this location, along with £15,000 in cash.

The group has since been sentenced to over 22 years in jail.