Four people-smugglers jailed for 78 years after 39 Vietnamese migrants found dead in the back of a lorry

FOUR people-smugglers have today been jailed for a combined 78 years after 39 Vietnamese migrants were smuggled into the UK and suffered an "excruciating" death in the back of a lorry.

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 leader of the conspiracy 41-year-old Ronan Hughes was jailed for 20 years while another major figure Gheorghe Nica, 44, was sentenced to 27 years behind bars.

Maurice Robinson, 26, the driver of the truck the bodies were found in was jailed for 13 years while Eamonn Harrison, 24, who drove the container to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, was given an 18-year sentence.

The four smugglers escaped life sentences as it emerged that there is a Vietnamese kingpin even higher up in the chain of command than Irish key player Hughes.

The mastermind, named only as "Phong" throughout the trial, arranged safe houses throughout the continent for hopeful migrants and was placed at "the top' of the ring" by Justice Sweeney in his sentencing today.

The Old Bailey heard how the migrants 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 who collected the trailer from the docks early the next morning.

They escaped life sentences as it emerged today that there is a Vietnamese kingpin even higher up in the chain of command than Irish key player Hughes.

'SOPHISTICATED OPERATION'

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.

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.

The Old Bailey 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.

The judge said today: "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 conspirators were of various nationalities in particular Vietnamese, Irish and Romanian and the conspiracy amounted to professional organised crime largely using unregistered phones for a profitable motive.

"This significantly undermined the United Kingdom's attempts to regulate and control immigration."

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.

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