AN ALBANIAN trafficker tried to cross the Channel in freezing conditions with eight people in a dinghy, a court heard.

Afrim Xhekaliu, 40, planned to bring the seven men and one woman to the UK illegally, a jury was told.

Lewes Crown Court yesterday heard Xhekaliu travelled to Albania from Gatwick before heading to Brussels and France to board the rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) to return to the UK.

All nine people on board the boat had either Albanian passports or ID cards.

Xhekaliu was the only one wearing a wetsuit when they were found off the Sussex coast, the court heard.

Kelly Brocklehurst, prosecuting, told the jury he was the only one who was dry, fit and healthy when the boat was picked up by the RNLI following an air and sea search on January 31 this year.

He said: “When they were rescued, they did not have any documentation and, with the exception of the defendant, they have all been deported or are claiming asylum.

“On January 31, there were a number of 999 calls made from that boat.

“That boat was in some distress.

“The RNLI lifeboat from Dungeness was directed to a spot in the Channel after the RHIB was spotted by a search and rescue helicopter.

“The RNLI found an orange RHIB about eight metres in length.

“It was apparent the defendant was one of two people wearing life jackets and he was the only one wearing a wetsuit.”

The defendant was sitting closest to the controls, Mr Brocklehurst said.

When he was arrested, it was explained to Xhekaliu the NCA suspected him of bringing people into the UK illegally.

“He said, ‘but I was in the boat with them’,” Mr Brocklehurst said.

“He changed out of his wetsuit into dry clothing which he had brought with him. The others were soaked to the skin and hypothermic.”

The Crown says the Albanian, who has been living in Barnet, London, with his partner for several years, was not simply another passenger on the boat.

Messages and pictures found on his mobile phone show he was trying to buy a RHIB and planned the trip across the Channel.

“He was making and carrying out of arrangements to facilitate the entry of the other eight into the UK,” Mr Brocklehurst said.

“Detectives found plane tickets from London to Tirana and the Albanian capital to Brussels in the days before the boat left France. Screenshots on the phone showed RHIBs for sale on Facebook or some such and it appears he passed these on to another number stored on his phone on October 3 and 5, 2017.

“In a text message to another man, the defendant wrote: ‘a trip is planned soon’.”

Mr Brocklehurst added: “These messages outline, he was not just simply a passenger but a facilitator.”

Xhekaliu denies immigration offences including the facilitation of bringing others into the UK illegally.

The case continues.