Two men guilty of killing 39 Vietnamese migrants in million-pound people smuggling ring

Will Taylor
·News Reporter
·5 min read

Watch: Justice found for 39 migrants as convictions made

Two men have been found guilty of the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated to death as they were smuggled into the UK.

A total of 39 men and women aged between 15 and 44 were found dead in a lorry trailer in Essex on 23 October last year.

It had been transported from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet, Essex, overnight.

The Old Bailey heard the migrants died inside the airtight container after suffocating amid high temperatures in what the prosecution described as their “tomb”.

Four men are standing trial relating to an alleged people smuggling plot after 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead. (PA/Essex Police/Elizabeth Cook)
Four men stood trial relating to an alleged people smuggling plot after 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead. (PA/Essex Police/Elizabeth Cook)

Lorry driver Eamon Harrison, 23, of County Down, Northern Ireland, and Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, were convicted on Monday of manslaughter after denying the charges.

They were also convicted of being part of a wider million-pound people-smuggling operation, alongside lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, of County Amargh, Northern Ireland, and Valentin Calota, 38, of Birmingham.

The gang were motivated by greed as they aimed to make more than £1m that month.

Inside the container, temperatures would have reached 38.5C and the migrants would have had no fresh air for almost 12 hours, the court was told.

They died from oxygen starvation and the effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Dock workers loading a trailer, believed to contain 39 Vietnamese migrants, onto a ship in Zeebrugge, Belgium. (PA/Essex Police)
Dock workers loading a trailer, believed to contain 39 Vietnamese migrants, on to a ship in Zeebrugge, Belgium. (PA/Essex Police)

Some tried to contact their families and Vietnamese police, but all in the back died.

Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25, said in a message to his family: “I’m sorry. I cannot take care of you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I cannot breathe.

“I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.”

Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, said in another recording: “I cannot breathe. I’m sorry, I have to go now.”

The court was told the people smuggling group had success before the migrant deaths, with prosecutors telling jurors the price of getting smuggled over the Channel was about £10,000 per person.

Migrants wanted “a better life” in the UK, the court heard, and the gang offered “VIP” services to Vietnamese people assembling in France and Belgium.

Maurice Robinson's cab arriving at Port of Purfleet. (PA/Essex Police)
Maurice Robinson's cab arriving at Port of Purfleet. (PA/Essex Police)
Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right) deny manslaughter. (PA/Elizabeth Cook)
Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right) denied manslaughter. (PA/Elizabeth Cook)

Harrison, who was accused of taking the migrants to Zeebrugge, said he did not know they were in the back, and added he felt “s****” and “devastated” for their families.

He had previously been stopped by Border Force, which found 18 Vietnamese people sitting on boxes of waffles in his trailer, the court heard. He said he was “shocked” they were there.

Kennedy said he picked up two migrants who were shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet in separate runs on 11 October and 18 October, 2019, but told the court he thought they were cigarette loads.

Calota said he was paid £700 by fellow Romanian Nica to transport what he thought were cigarettes from Essex to London on 18 October, and insisted he did not hear or see migrants because he was wearing earphones, smoking with the window down and had the radio volume turned up.

Nica admitted a limited role in people smuggling but denied being part of the fatal run on 23 October.

Screengrab taken from bodyworn video on 23 October issued by Essex Police showing officers after being called to the container when the bodies were found. (PA/Essex Police)
Screengrab taken from bodyworn video on 23 October issued by Essex Police showing officers after being called to the container when the bodies were found. (PA/Essex Police)

Bill Emlyn Jones, prosecuting, told jurors that with £390,000 potentially made from taking the migrants – “almost all profit” – those involved would be in the loop.

He added: “It is, we say, inconceivable that serious and organised criminals would get involved in a network without precise agreement (about) how the money would be divvied up and how much money was involved.

“If any cog in the wheel does not know what they are dealing with, there is immediately and obviously a risk of the whole thing going wrong and I suggest no organised criminal group would entertain that risk for a second.”

A Snapchat message from Ronan Hughes to Maurice Robinson, which was shown at the Old Bailey. (PA/Essex Police)
A Snapchat message from Ronan Hughes to Maurice Robinson, which was shown at the Old Bailey. (PA/Essex Police)

Jurors were told Maurice Robinson, of Craigavon, who picked up the trailer of migrants in Essex before finding the migrants dead, has pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter and the conspiracy charge.

He worked for haulier boss Ronan Hughes, 41, of Armagh, who has pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist in unlawful immigration.

Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, of Essex Police, described the gang as “greedy” but “complacent”.

He said: “You would not transport animals in that way but they were quite happy to do that and put them at significant risk.”

A total of eight people have now been convicted in Britain in relation to the tragedy to eight, with prosecutors considering more charges again three other people.

Kelly Matthews, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “Thirty-nine vulnerable people desperate for a new life put their trust in an unscrupulous network of people smugglers.

“Nothing can bring back the lives lost on that day or the loss caused by the horrible, unlawful and dangerous actions of these defendants.”

Watch: Essex Police 'secure justice' for migrants who died in lorry