People-smuggling gang members jailed over Essex lorry deaths

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Two ringleaders receive sentences of 27 and 20 years after 39 Vietnamese people suffocated in container.

The two ringleaders of the people-smuggling gang responsible for the deaths of 39 Vietnamese people who suffocated in a sealed refrigeration container as they were transported across the Channel from France have received prison sentences of 27 and 20 years.
Ronan Hughes, 41, who ran a haulage company and organised the lorries and drivers to transport the migrants, was sentenced to 20 years at the Old Bailey on Friday. He pleaded guilty last year to 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiring to bring people into the country unlawfully.

Hughes, an Irish haulier, alternated between legitimate shipments of waffles, soft drinks and wine from warehouses across Europe and illegal smuggling of alcohol, cigarettes and people.

His co-conspirator Gheorghe Nica, 43, a Romanian lorry mechanic who helped coordinate the transport of the migrants, and who was found guilty last year of manslaughter and people-smuggling, was sentenced by Mr Justice Sweeney to 27 years in prison.

Maurice Robinson, 26, the lorry driver from Northern Ireland who collected the container containing the 39 people from the port in Essex in October 2019, and also pleaded guilty last year to manslaughter and people-smuggling, was sentenced to 13 years and four months.

A screengrab of Maurice Robinson leaving Purfleet port
A screengrab of Maurice Robinson leaving Purfleet port. Photograph: Essex Police/PA

He was paid £25,000 in cash to pick up the container and had been instructed by Hughes to open the lorry trailer to give the migrants air shortly after collecting it from Purfleet docks, but he found they were all dead. He waited 20 minutes before calling emergency services. A cloud of steam that emerged from the trailer, caught on CCTV, “spoke volumes of the heat that was still inside the trailer”, the judge said.

The victims were 28 men, eight women and three children, two of them aged 15. When it became obvious that there was insufficient oxygen they made desperate attempts to escape through the roof of the lorry, and tried to call emergency services in Vietnam. As they began to die inside the dark container, where the temperature had risen to 38.5C, they recorded farewell messages for their relatives. They died “excruciatingly slow deaths”, the judge said, of asphyxia and hyperthermia, or overheating.

Sweeney said there was a need for deterrent sentences because “the control of immigration, which affects the social fabric of our country, our economy and our security is an area of considerable public concern”.

Lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, also from Northern Ireland, who collected the migrants in northern France and drove the container to Zeebrugge, was found guilty of people-smuggling and 39 counts of manslaughter in December. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

The 39 victims.
The 39 victims. Photograph: Essex Police

The four defendants charged with manslaughter all said they had not intended harm to the victims, but the judge noted that the conspiracy was committed for financial gain.

Christopher Kennedy, 24, another lorry driver from Northern Ireland who was involved in earlier people-smuggling runs bringing Vietnamese migrants from Northern Ireland, was sentenced to seven years.

The trial exposed for the first time a complex and lucrative operation which has for years illegally brought Vietnamese people into the UK. Each passenger paid smugglers between £10,000 and £13,000 to be brought from northern France. The prosecution described the people-smuggling conspiracy as “sophisticated, long-running and profitable”. The trial focused on four people-smuggling runs by the gang in the space of just a fortnight in October 2019 which, if they had all been successful, would have brought more than 80 Vietnamese migrants into the UK and netted the organisers £800,000.

The families of many of the victims had mortgaged their land to pay fees of up to £30,000 to people smugglers to take them in stages to the UK; the trial only focused on the final leg of the journey between France and Britain. Relatives said the victims had hoped to take up work in restaurants and nail bars in Britain, and planned to send their earnings home to help support their families.

Parents of one of the youngest victims, Nguyen Huy Hung, who was 15 when he died, paid tribute to their “peaceful and smart” son. “He loved football very much and he loved UK teams as well as the Champions League. He was also a good player. He always dreamed of going to the UK and he tried very hard to study at school as well as learning English for that purpose. His loss is so sudden for us. He did not have a chance to fulfil his dream,” they said in a statement.

Some of the victims reassured their anxious families that they had paid extra for a so-called VIP journey to the UK – which meant the lorry driver was helping them to cross the border, and there was no need for them to break into vehicles and stow themselves away. However the involvement of the lorry drivers offered them no protection when too many people were packed into one container.

The chief constable of Essex police, Ben-Julian Harrington, said this was the biggest operation in his force’s history. “On 23 October 2019 we were called to a scene that no officer could ever have prepared for. Every person in that trailer had left behind a family. They had been promised safe passage to our shores and they were lied to. They were left to die, all because of the greed of the men who have been sentenced today.”

The home secretary, Priti Patel, said: “The inhumanity of these callous people smugglers and their dangerous organised criminal networks has rightly been reflected in the sentencing today.”

Valentin Calota, 38, a pickup driver from Romania, who collected migrants from the lorry drop-off spot in Essex and drove them to London during an earlier consignment, was sentenced to four and a half years. Alexandru Hanga, 28, who performed a similar role on one occasion in October 2019, and who last year pleaded guilty to conspiracy to assist unlawful migration, was sentenced to three years in prison.

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