Smuggling gang jailed over deaths of 39 migrants in Essex lorry

Members of a smuggling gang have been jailed for their role in causing the deaths of 39 migrants in the back of a lorry in Essex.

Ringleaders Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica, who were convicted
of manslaughter, have been jailed at the Old Bailey for 20 years and 27 years respectively.

Lorry driver Maurice Robinson, 26, was jailed for 13 years and four months, and
Eamonn Harrison, 24, who had collected the victims on the continent, was handed 18 years in prison.

The victims, Vietnamese men, woman and children, had hoped for a better life in Britain when they agreed to pay up to £13,000 a head for a ‘VIP’ smuggling service.

On October 22 2019, they were crammed into an airtight lorry container to be shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet in Essex in pitch black and sweltering conditions.

The Old Bailey 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 Robinson who collected the trailer from the docks early the next morning.

Robinson, 26, of Craigavon, and his boss Ronan Hughes, 41, of Armagh, had admitted plotting to people smuggle and 39 counts of manslaughter.

Hughes’ partner in crime Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, and Eamonn Harrison, 24, of County Down, who had collected the victims on the continent, were found guilty of the offences.

They were sentenced on Friday with other members of the people-smuggling gang – Christopher Kennedy, 24, of County Armagh, Valentin Calota, 38, from Birmingham, and Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28.

The court had heard the operation was sophisticated, 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 23 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 and £13,000, 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, 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: ‘Everyday, 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 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.’

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