People-smugglers jailed in UK over deaths of 39 migrants in back of lorry

Romanian Gheorghe Nica received the longest sentence of 27 years

THURROCK, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23: A lorry in which 39 bodies were discovered in the trailer is driven from the site to a secure location where further forensic investigation can take place, on October 23, 2019 in Thurrock, England. The lorry was discovered early Wednesday morning in Waterglade Industrial Park on Eastern Avenue in the town of Grays. Authorities said they believed the lorry originated in Bulgaria. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Four members of a smuggling gang responsible for the "excruciatingly slow deaths" of 39 mainly Vietnamese migrants in the back of a lorry were sentenced to jail on Friday for up to 27 years.

Romanian Gheorghe Nica, 43, a senior figure in the gang, received the longest jail term for manslaughter and other charges with six other members of the group sentenced to between three and 20 years in prison at a hearing in London.

FILE - This file court artist sketch dated Oct. 6, 2020 by Elizabeth Cook shows Gheorghe Nica, left, and Eamonn Harrison, right, at the Old Bailey in London. Two members of an international people-smuggling gang were convicted of manslaughter on Monday Dec. 21, 2020, over the deaths of 39 people who were found in the back of a container truck in southeast England. A jury at London’s Central Criminal Court found Romanian mechanic Gheorghe Nica, 43, and Northern Irish truck driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, guilty of the deaths of the Vietnamese victims, who were found dead in the English town of Grays. (Elizabeth Cook/PA via AP, File)

The migrants died inside an airtight container in October 2019 as they were brought to England from northern Europe in a highly-organised smuggling racket that had been operating for more than a decade.

The deaths shocked Britain and Vietnam and shone a spotlight on the illicit global trade that sends the poor of Asia, Africa and the Middle East on perilous journeys to the West.

Temperatures rose to 40°C in the container during the sea journey from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge to the UK as oxygen levels fell. The desperate migrants, aged from 15 to 44, stripped off their clothes in the rising heat, attempted to contact relatives on their mobile phones and tried unsuccessfully to break through the roof.

They were all dead by the time the container was picked up by a lorry driver from Purfleet, Essex, in south-east England. The court was told that a cloud of steam emerged from the back of the lorry when the driver opened the rear doors because of the heat generated during the trip.

THURROCK, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23: A Police forensic investigation team are parked near the site where 39 bodies were discovered in the back of a lorry on October 23, 2019 in Thurrock, England. The lorry was discovered early Wednesday morning in Waterglade Industrial Park on Eastern Avenue in the town of Grays. Authorities said they believed the lorry originated in Bulgaria. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The haulage company boss Ronan Hughes, 41, was sentenced to 20 years in jail while Maurice Robinson, 26, the driver who discovered the bodies, was sentenced to more than 13 years. Hughes was a veteran of the illicit trade who was jailed in 2009 after being caught trying to smuggle six million cigarettes.

The court was told that Hughes and Nica played senior roles in the gang but were not the kingpins of the operation that also included Vietnamese criminals. Four people were also sentenced to jail for up to seven years in Vietnam for helping to arrange people-trafficking journeys to Europe.

After their arrival from Asia, the smuggling gang had arranged for the migrants to be taken from safe houses in Paris and Dunkirk, France, and Brussels, Belgium, to an industrial estate in northern France.

There they were loaded into the back of the container and taken to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge by driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, who on Friday was sentenced to 18 years in jail.

The trailer was loaded on to a freighter and the migrants were due to be collected on the other side of the Channel and taken to safe houses in London until relatives paid up to £13,000 ($17,755) for the journey.

But they never made it beyond Purfleet. When Robinson came to pick them up the following morning he contacted the emergency services after discovering the bodies.

The gang was highly active and was involved in four operations, including the fatal one involving the 39 migrants, in a fortnight.

Mr Justice Sweeney said: "I have no doubt that… the conspiracy was a sophisticated, long-running and profitable one to smuggle mainly Vietnamese migrants across the channel."

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