The “mafia grandmother” owner of a bogus charity that was smuggling people into the UK has been sentenced to more than five years in prison.
Pranvera Smith, 47, set up Freedom to Stay in 2014 and ran the Birmingham-based group with her partner Flamur Daka, 44.
The organisation, which fraudulently obtained a £10,000 grant from the National Lottery Community Fund, claimed its aim was to help vulnerable Albanian asylum seekers navigate the UK benefits and care system.
Smith described herself as “La Nonna”’, or an Albanian mafia grandmother, to intimidate immigrants and bully them into paying about £1,000 each for Freedom to Stay's services, according to police.
Many of the new arrivals ended up working in car washes on less than the minimum wage.
Smith and Daka also turned a blind eye as victims worked in cannabis farms to pay for her “charitable” services, police said.
An investigation by West Midlands Regional Organised Crime Unit revealed the pair were lining their pockets with taxpayers’ money and charging clients a small fortune for help they claimed was free, and had even trafficked people in trucks from Albania via Ghent.
On 2 July this year, ROCU officers, working alongside the East Flanders Human Trafficking Unit in Belgium, rescued a 21-year-old man from the back of a lorry in the Belgian port.
The charity’s offices in Hagley Road, Birmingham, were raided, along with the couple’s home addresses and a property in Bearwood High Street, which Smith had spent about £30,000 converting into a Mediterranean restaurant and which was used to launder their crime proceeds, according to police.
Detectives trawled through Freedom to Stay’s finances and found that in the first six months of 2020 alone, it had represented more than 130 victims and collectively charged them at least £130,000.
Smith and Daka were both charged with conspiracy to breach UK immigration law.
Smith was also charged with fraud by false representation, in relation to the NLCF claim, and supplying cannabis, after officers recovered a kilo of the drug.
Daka was additionally charged with supplying cocaine.
Smith was sentenced to five years and four months' imprisonment, and Daka to four years, after they pleaded guilty to the offences at Birmingham Crown Court last week.
Freedom to Stay has been removed from the register of charities.
Detective chief inspector Will Henley, of the ROCU, said: “These were cynical, calculating crimes. Smith and Daka positioned themselves as big-hearted, charitable people who wanted to help very vulnerable people.
“Once their trafficking racket was established we believe they intended to smuggle up to 30 people a month into the UK.
“And while their victims were suffering Smith and Daka were making lots of money, which they spent on developing a restaurant and on houses in Albania and Turkey.
“We have restrained these properties pending a proceeds of crime investigation. It’s important we show that crime doesn’t pay.”