A woman who set up a bogus charity purporting to help asylum seekers was secretly smuggling undocumented migrants into the UK and exploiting their labour to enrich herself.

Turning a blind eye as scores of migrants worked in cannabis farms to pay for her ‘charitable’ services, Pranvera Smith established ‘Freedom to Stay’ in 2014 and ran the Birmingham-based group with her partner Flamur Daka.

The charity – which fraudulently claimed a £10,000 Big Lottery Fund grant – promoted itself as a not-for-profit group helping vulnerable Albanian asylum seekers navigate the benefits and care system.

However, an investigation by police in the West Midlands revealed the crooked pair were lining their pockets with taxpayers’ money and charging “clients” a small fortune for their help they claimed was free.

Pranvera Smith was sentenced to five years and four months imprisonmentWMP
Pranvera Smith was sentenced to five years and four months imprisonment

According to police investigators, Smith openly described herself as ‘La Nonna’ – or an Albanian mafia ‘Grandmother’ – to intimidate immigrants and bully them into paying around £1,000 each.

Many of the new arrivals ended up working below minimum wage in car washes to meet Smith’s demands, while some were rescued from illegal cannabis farms.

The investigation by officers from the West Midlands Regional Organised Crime Unit (ROCU) even found the 47-year-old and Daka, aged 44, trafficked people from Albania in trucks via the city of Ghent in Belgium.

Flamur Daka was sentenced to four years for fraud and supplying cocaineWMP
Flamur Daka was sentenced to four years for fraud and supplying cocaine

On 2 July this year, Regional Organised Crime Unit (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.

Freedom to Stay’s offices in Hagley Road were raided along with their home addresses plus a property in Bearwood High Street – which Smith spent around £30,000 on to convert into a Mediterranean restaurant – through which they laundered their crime proceeds.

Detectives trawled through the charity’s financial dealings and found 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 Big Lottery Fund claim and supplying cannabis after officers recovered a kilo of the drug as part of the investigation. Daka was additionally charged with supplying cocaine.

They admitted the offences and at Birmingham Crown Court today (Thursday 29 October) and Smith was sentenced to five years and four months imprisonment, while Daka was sentenced to four years.

Freedom to Stay’s Pranvera Smith £30,000 on this property in Bearwood High Street with a plan to convert it into a Mediterranean restaurantWMP
Freedom to Stay’s Pranvera Smith £30,000 on this property in Bearwood High Street with a plan to convert it into a Mediterranean restaurant

The organisation’s website has been removed but a description of the exposed charity’s work remains online, stating, “Freedom 2 Stay was founded as a response to the great need of the growing new and emerging communities in Birmingham and surrounding areas. Through the range of services that we provide, we endeavour to offer these communities in the West Midlands the support that they need.”

ROCU Detective Chief Inspector Will Henley, said: “These were cynical, calculating crimes. Smith and Daka positioned themselves as big hearted charitable people who wanted to help very vulnerable people.

“In reality they were traffickers and abusers. They knew migrants would be paying up to £10,000 to traffickers to gain illegal entry in to the UK – and Smith would then charge each asylum seeker upwards of £1,000 for their ‘charity’ services.

“The rescued man would have been expected to hide in a lorry trailer for the entire duration of the trip from Belgium. Once their trafficking racket was established we believe they intended to smuggle up to 30 people a month into the UK.

The 'Freedom to Stay' charity logo WMP
The ‘Freedom to Stay’ charity logo

“Smith liked to describe herself as ‘La Nonna’ to ensure people knew she wasn’t a person to be messed with. If they couldn’t pay up she would withhold important personal and immigration documents.

“And while their victims were suffering she 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.

“I’d like to thank the East Flanders Human Trafficking Unit who helped us collect vital evidence; I have no doubt that together we have prevented a large number people being trafficked into the UK.”

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