Two people smugglers were found guilty on Monday of the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children who suffocated to death in the back of a refrigerated truck in October last year after the lorry landed in Britain after crossing the sea from Europe.
The migrants suffocated in the sealed container en route from Zeebrugge Belgium to Purfleet England in October 2019.
The discovery of so many dead people – some as young as 15 – shocked Britain and Vietnam and shone a spotlight on the illicit global trade that sends the poor of Asia, Africa and the Middle East on perilous journeys to find a future in the West.
As oxygen levels fell in the back of the truck, some tried desperately to escape, but in vain. Others used mobile phones to say their last farewells to families on the other side of the world when they knew their situation was hopeless.
Prosecutors said the container became a “tomb” as temperatures in the unit reached an “unbearable” 38.5 degrees Celsius.
“This is an unimaginably tragic case: 39 vulnerable people desperate for a new life put their trust in a network of unscrupulous people smugglers,” said Russell Tyner, a prosecutor in the Organised Crime Division.
“They died through lack of oxygen, desperately trying to escape from the container.”
Truck driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, from Northern Ireland, and Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Essex, were found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, following a 10-week trial at England’s Central Criminal Court in London. They will be sentenced at a later date, reports the BBC.
“The men who were found guilty today made their money from misery,” said Ben Harrington, the chief constable of Essex Police.
During the trial, jurors were shown photographs of the Vietnamese victims – who included a bricklayer, a university graduate and a nailbar technician – and were told of their dreams of a better life.
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.
Many of their families borrowed heavily to fund their passage, relying on their potential future earnings once they got to the UK, reports Reuters.
“I’ve never stopped thinking about my son since the tragedy happened and I still wish for a miracle to bring him home with us,” said Nguyen Dinh Gia, father of Nguyen Dinh Luong, one of the victims.
“Now I don’t really care if the smugglers will face a long sentence or not,” Gia told Reuters by phone from Ha Tinh.
“Life must go on and I hope there won’t be any such accidents happening again to people seeking a better life,” Gia said.
In neighboring Nghe An, Diep, the brother of victim Bui Thi Nhung said he no longer wanted to talk about the incident. “It’s like opening the wound over and over again,” he said.
Home Secretary Priti Patel described the deaths as a “truly tragic”.