Four men have been jailed for the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants found dead in a lorry trailer in Essex, United Kingdom.
The migrants died “excruciatingly painful” deaths, having suffocated in the shipping container en route from Belgium to Purfleet in October 2019, a judge said.
Ronan Hughes, 41, and Gheorghe Nica, 43, played “leading roles” in the smuggling conspiracy and were jailed for 20 and 27 years respectively.
At the Old Bailey, two lorry drivers were also jailed for manslaughter.
Eamonn Harrison, 24, who towed the trailer to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before their journey to the UK, was sentenced to 18 years.
Maurice Robinson, 26, was given 13 years and four months, having collected the trailer and opened it in an industrial estate to find the migrants dead.
Three others members of the people-smuggling gang were also sentenced for conspiracy to facilitate unlawful immigration.
Christopher Kennedy, 24, from County Armagh, was jailed for seven years; Valentin Calota, 38, of Birmingham, for four-and-a-half years; and Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28, of Hobart Road, Tilbury, Essex, was given a three-year sentence.
Sentencing the accused, Justice Sweeney said, “I have no doubt that the conspiracy was a sophisticated, long-running and profitable one to smuggle mainly Vietnamese people across the channel.”
He said on the fatal trip the temperature had been rising along with the carbon dioxide levels throughout, hitting 40C (104F) while the container was at sea on 22 October 2019.
“There were desperate attempts to contact the outside world by phone and to break through the roof of the container,” the judge said.
“All were to no avail and, before the ship reached Purfleet, [the victims] all died in what must have been an excruciatingly painful death.”
The victims had used a metal pole to try to punch through the roof but only managed to dent the interior.
The court heard some of their final desperate phone messages, including one where a man spoke with ragged breaths as he apologised to his family.
“I can’t breathe,” he said. “I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.”
Justice Sweeney said, “The willingness of the victims to try and enter the country illegally provides no excuse for what happened to them.”
During the trial, jurors were given a snapshot of the victims – who included a bricklayer, a university graduate and a nail bar technician – and their dreams of a better life.
Many of their families borrowed heavily to fund their passage, relying on their potential future earnings once they got into the UK.
The father of Nguyen Huy Tung, one of two 15-year-olds in the container, later learned of his son’s death via social media.