Four people smugglers have been jailed for the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants they were trying to bring into the UK.
Men and women aged between 15 and 44 were found dead after running out of air in a sealed container that was shipped from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet, Essex in October 2019.
They were picked up by lorry driver Maurice Robinson in the UK, who found their bodies in the back as he was told to “give them air quickly” by haulier boss and ringleader Ronan Hughes.
Following a trial, 24-year-old lorry driver Eamon Harrison, from County Down, Northern Ireland, who picked up the migrants in France before taking them to Zeebrugge, was found guilty of the migrants’ manslaughter.
Watch: People smugglers jailed
Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, was also convicted of their manslaughter.
Robinson, 26, of Craigavon in Northern Ireland, and Hughes, 41, of Armagh, Northern Ireland, admitted the manslaughters before trial.
Hughes was given 20 years in prison and Nica 27 at the Old Bailey on Friday. Robinson was given 13 years and four months, and Harrison was handed 18 years.
They will have to serve at least two-thirds of their sentence.
Sentencing, Justice Sweeney said the migrants would have suffered an “excruciating death” and added: “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 willingness of the victims to try and enter the country illegally provides no excuse for what happened to them.”
Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten of Essex Police welcomed the sentences, said the migrants were transported “way worse than we would transport animals”.
Other members of the gang were also jailed for their role in the operation.
Lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, of County 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.
Prosecutors said they were motivated by greed and wanted to make more than £1m in October 2019.
They stood to make just under £400,000 to transport the Vietnamese into the UK as the migrants sought a better life.
However, as the Vietnamese were shipped overnight, the container they were put in reached temperatures of 38.5C and they died from oxygen starvation and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, suffocating to death.
The people smugglers previously heard messages played back in court from the migrants.
Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25, said in a message to his family: “I cannot breathe.
“I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.”
In the background, a voice can be heard pleading “open up, open up”.
Sounds of people gasping while they run out of air could be heard, and in their desperation the migrants tried to use a pole to punch through the container roof.
Tran Hai Loc and wife Nugyen Thi Van, both 35, were found huddled together in the container. They left two children aged six and four.
The container arrived in the UK early on 23 October, and Robinson stopped outside of Purfleet to open the doors at the back and found the migrants dead.
A 15-minute series of phone calls between Robinson, Hughes, Kennedy and Nica were made before Robinson called 999.
The Old Bailey heard the sophisticated, long-running smuggling operation included seven identified runs between May 2018 and October 2019.
Migrants would be picked up in smaller vehicles by Nica and taken to a safe house until payment – between £10,000 and £13,000 for a VIP route where the lorry driver was aware they were in the back – was received.
The runs, which had sometimes been thwarted by border officials and Essex residents, stopped after the 23 October tragedy.
Relatives of the migrants spoke of their heartbreak.
Nguyen Huy Hung’s father Nguyen Huy Tung found out about his son’s death on social media, and said he was “shocked, trembled” by the news.
Essex Police Chief Constable Ben-Julian Harrington said: “Every person in that trailer had left behind a family. They had been promised safe passage to our shores and they were lied to. They were left to die, all because of the greed of the men who have been sentenced today.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “The pain and suffering endured by the families of the victims of this terrible tragedy is unbearable. They will always remain in my thoughts and prayers.
“The inhumanity of these callous people smugglers and their dangerous organised criminal networks has rightly been reflected in the sentencing today.”
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