Emily Pennink and Tess De La Mare
Four people smugglers have been jailed for the manslaughter of 39 migrants, who suffered an “excruciating” death in an airtight trailer.
The victims, Vietnamese men, woman and children, had hoped for a better life in Britain when they agreed to pay up to £13,000 (€14,500) a head for a ‘VIP’ smuggling service.
On October 22nd, 2019, the group were crammed into a lorry container to be shipped from Zeebrugge, Belgium to Purfleet in Essex, England in pitch black and sweltering conditions.
The Old Bailey in London heard how they desperately tried to raise the alarm as they ran out of air before reaching British shores.
The migrants, two aged just 15, were found dead by lorry driver Maurice Robinson from Co Armagh who collected the trailer from the docks early the next morning.
Robinson (26) of Craigavon, and his boss Ronan Hughe (41), also from Armagh, had admitted to plotting to people smuggle and 39 counts of manslaughter.
Gheorghe Nica (43) of Basildon, Essex, and Eamonn Harrison (24) from Co Down, who had collected the victims on the continent, were found guilty of the offences.
Robinson, who also admitted to money-laundering, was sentenced to 13 years and four months in jail. Hughes was sentenced to 20 years in prison, Nica to 27 years and Harrison to 18 years.
Mr Justice Sweeney said: “I have no doubt that, as asserted by the prosecution, the conspiracy was a sophisticated, long-running, and profitable one to smuggle mainly Vietnamese migrants across the channel.”
The migrants had desperately tried to break out of the trailer and raise the alarm before they suffered an “excruciatingly slow death”, the judge said.
Other members of the gang were also jailed for their role in the organised criminal operation.
Lorry driver Christopher Kennedy (24) of Co Armagh, was jailed for seven years; Valentin Calota (38) from Birmingham, was handed four and a half years; and Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga (28) from Essex, was sentenced to three years in custody.
The court had heard the operation was long-running and profitable, with the smugglers standing to make more than a million pounds in October 2019 alone.
A total of seven smuggling trips were identified between May 2018 and October 23rd, 2019, although the court heard there were likely to have been more.
Migrants would board lorries at a remote location on the continent to be transported to Britain where they would be picked up by a fleet of smaller vehicles organised by Nica for transfer to a safe house until payment was received.
The fee was between £10,000 (€11,200) and £13,000 (€14,500) for the ‘VIP route’ in which the driver was aware of the presence of smuggled migrants inside the trailer attached to his lorry.
Some of the trips were thwarted by border officials and residents in Orsett, Essex, who had repeatedly reported migrants being dropped off to the police.
Yet the smuggling operation was not stopped until after the tragic journey.
The families of the victims in Vietnam and Britain have spoken of their loss and hardship.
Phan Thi Thanh (41) had sold the family home and left her son with his godmother before setting off on the ill-fated journey.
Her “heartbroken” son said: “I heard about the incident from mass media, so I called dad in the UK in order to confirm if mum was a victim.
“I was very shocked, very sad, and I was crying a lot.”
Tran Hai Loc and his wife Nguyen Thi Van, both 35, who were found huddled together in death, left two children aged six and four.
The children’s grandfather Tran Dinh Thanh said: “Every day, when they come home from school they always look at the photos of their parents on the altar.
“The decease of both parents is a big loss to them.”
Fifteen-year-old Nguyen Huy Hung’s UK-based father Nguyen Huy Tung, learned about his son’s death on social media.
He said: “We were very shocked, trembled, we lost track and awareness of our surroundings.
“My wife had fainted many times whenever our son’s name was mentioned.”