Four people-smugglers – three from Northern Ireland – have been jailed for the manslaughter of 39 migrants who suffered “excruciating” deaths in an airtight trailer.
The victims had hoped for a better life in Britain when they agreed to pay up to £13,000 each for a “VIP” smuggling service.
Yet the Vietnamese men, woman and children’s lives ended in agony.
Now three men from Armagh, Craigavon and County Down have been locked up for a total of 51 years for their roles in the tragedy.
The migrants had desperately tried to break out of the trailer and raise the alarm before they suffered an “excruciatingly slow death”, the Old Bailey was told.
On October 22, 2019, they were crammed into a lorry container to be shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet in Essex in sweltering conditions and complete darkness.
The court heard that they tried with increasing desperation to raise the alarm as they ran out of air before reaching British shores.
The migrants were found dead by Northern Irish lorry driver Maurice Robinson, who collected the trailer from the docks early the next morning.
Two victims were aged just 15.
Robinson, 26, of Craigavon, and his boss Ronan Hughes, 41, of Armagh, had admitted plotting to people-smuggle and 39 counts of manslaughter.
Hughes’s 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.
Today, Friday, January 22, Robinson, who also admitted money-laundering, was jailed for 13 years and four months in jail.
In addition, Hughes was sentenced to 20 years in prison, Nica to 27 years and Harrison to 18 years.
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 court heard the operation was sophisticated, long-running and profitable, with the smugglers standing to make more than £1 million in October 2019 alone.
A total of seven smuggling trips were identified between May 2018 and October 23, 2019.
The court heard there were likely to have been more, the Mirror Online reports.
Migrants would board lorries at a remote location on the continent before being transported to Britain.
There, 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 so-called 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.
-- to www.belfastlive.co.uk