People smuggler jailed in UK after 39 migrants found dead in lorry

Romanian national says he couldn't say no to smuggling ringleader who had him 'over a barrel'

The Central Criminal Court, commonly known as the Old Bailey, in London. AP
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A people smuggler who fled the UK after 39 Vietnamese nationals were found dead in the back of a lorry has been jailed for almost four years.

Dragos Stefan Damian, 28, was extradited from Italy to face a UK court after the investigation into the deaths of the men, women and children.

Their bodies were found in a lorry trailer after it was taken by ferry from Zeebrugge to Purfleet, in Essex, early on October 23, 2019.

Damian admitted he had been waiting at a pick-up point to take the migrants on to London when the tragedy unfolded.

The Romanian national, who stood to make £1,000 ($1,315) that night, also admitted he allowed his van to be used on previous occasions, the court heard.

Damian said he felt he could not say no to ringleader Gheorghe Nica, who had him “over a barrel”.

After the discovery of the bodies, he said that he fled “part in panic and part in fear”, the Old Bailey heard.

On Monday, Mr Justice Nigel Sweeney jailed Damian for 46 months.

Earlier, prosecutor Jonathan Polnay told the court that Damian had been part of a “sophisticated, long-running and profitable conspiracy” to smuggle mainly Vietnamese migrants into the UK in the backs of lorries.

“The defendant’s role was in allowing the use of his van to pick up migrants in the UK and on one occasion travelling to Collingwood Farm himself,” Mr Polnay said.

He had been waiting for new arrivals when lorry driver Maurice Robinson discovered the dead migrants after picking up the trailer at Purfleet.

Damian left the area bound for the continent within 11 minutes of Robinson telling his boss, Ronan Hughes, of the deaths, the court heard.

“At 1.17am, Mr Robinson informed Ronan Hughes," Mr Polnay said.

“At 1.28am — 11 minutes later — Mr Damian drove away from Collingwood Farm obviously having been informed of events because at 7am he left the country departing from Dover docks.”

Damian was arrested just outside Milan and sent back to Britain last September.

In November, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration between May 1, 2018, and October 24, 2019.

As part of the investigation, police identified at least six smuggling trips, with migrants paying up to £13,000 for a “VIP” service.

In October 2019, the smugglers stood to make more than £1 million.

Migrants would board lorries at a remote location on the continent to be taken to Britain, where they would be picked up by smaller vehicles for transfer to safe houses until payment was received.

Some of the trips were thwarted by border officials, and residents in Orsett, Essex, had repeatedly reported migrants being dropped off, but 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.

In January, four men were jailed for between 27 years and 13 years and four months for manslaughter and plotting to smuggle people.

They were Nica, 45, from Basildon, and Hughes, 42, of Armagh, and lorry drivers Maurice Robinson, 27, of Craigavon, and Eamonn Harrison, 25, of County Down.

Three other members of the gang were also jailed for their role in the operation.

Updated: March 21, 2022, 10:59 PM