Four men were given long jail sentences on Friday for the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children who suffocated to death in a stifling, airtight shipping container in October 2019 as they were being smuggled into Britain.
The discovery of so many dead people – two as young as 15 – in the back of the truck on an industrial estate to the east of London shocked Britain and Vietnam. It also 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.
As oxygen levels fell, some tried desperately to escape, but in vain. Others used mobile phones to say their last farewells to devastated relatives on the other side of the world.
Judge Nigel Sweeney said they had suffered an “excruciating slow death” as he jailed seven men involved in the people smuggling gang for a total of 92 years at London’s Old Bailey criminal court.
He said it was a sophisticated, long-running, and profitable scheme which would have netted the gang hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The four who admitted or were found guilty of manslaughter and immigration offences, were 41-year-old haulier Ronan Hughes from Northern Ireland, the leader of the plot who was jailed for 20 years, and Romanian Gheorghe Nica, 44, another major figure, who was sentenced to 27 years behind bars.
Maurice Robinson, 26, the Northern Irish driver of the truck in which the bodies were found, was jailed for 13 years, while Eamonn Harrison, 24, also from the British province, who drove the container to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge from where the victims were taken to Britain, was given an 18-year sentence.
Most of those who died were from Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces in north-central Vietnam, where poor job prospects, environmental disasters and the promise of financial reward abroad fuel migration.
British police have released tributes from the relatives of those who had died, including the parents of soccer fan Nguyen Huy Hung, 15.
“He always dreamt of going to the U.K. and he tried very hard to study at school as well as learning English for that purpose,” they said.
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