By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A British court sentenced two men to jail on Friday after they were caught trying to smuggle a group Albanian migrants into the country on a boat that ran into trouble in the English Channel.

Robert Stilwell was imprisoned for four years and four months and Mark Stribling for four years and eight months after pleading guilty to conspiring to assist illegal immigration at an earlier hearing at Maidstone Crown Court.

The pair were arrested in May as they attempted to cross the channel from northern France in a boat with 18 Albanian migrants on board.

Rescue teams, lifeboats and a search and rescue helicopter were alerted to the vessel after its battery failed amid poor weather, prosecutors said.

"We may well have seen a tragedy just off the British coastline, especially as the only people in the boat wearing life jackets were the defendants," said deputy chief crown prosecutor Kris Venkatasami in a statement.

The migrants paid 6,000 euros ($6,700) each to make the trip which nearly cost them their lives, he said.

Earlier this month, the head of the European Union's police agency said law enforcement officers were battling a surge in the number of people smugglers to record levels as criminal networks cash in on Europe's escalating migrant crisis.

Europol director Rob Wainwright said the agency now had close to 50,000 suspected people smugglers in its database, with an extra 7,000 suspects added in the first half of 2016.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have risked their lives to come to Europe in flimsy boats, fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond.

Few migrants hoping to reach Britain use the route across the English Channel, instead they usually climb onto lorries heading onto ferries near the French city of Calais or break into the nearby Channel Tunnel.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit