The ‘desperate’ Vietnamese migrants who suffocated to death in a chiller truck in Essex last year died after paying people smugglers up to £10,000 each for an illegal importation that went ‘dreadfully wrong,’ a court has heard.
Irish truck driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, and British-Romanian Gheorghe Nica, 43, are accused of killing the 39 victims who were found in a container near Grays, Essex on October 23 last year.
Valentin Calota, 37, and Christopher Kennedy, 24, are also said to have been linked to a global smuggling ring driving truckloads of foreign nationals into the UK.
The victims – including two 15-year-old boys and ten older teenagers – were found dead in the airtight trailer and were identified as coming from various provinces in Vietnam.
They allegedly paid thousands of pounds to be ferried into the country on a journey ‘fraught with danger’ in search of economic opportunity, the Old Bailey heard.
Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, and Harrison, 23, of Mayobridge, Co Down, Northern Ireland, are charged with their manslaughter.
The pair are also charged with conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration between May 1 2018 and October 24 2019, along with Calota, 37, of Birmingham, and Kennedy, 24, of Co Armagh, Northern Ireland.
On Tuesday, Nica pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge.
He and the other three defendants deny the other charges against them.
Last October, 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were found inside the lorry on an industrial estate in Purfleet, Essex
The 39 migrants were prepared to take ‘extraordinary risks’ as they looked for a better life, the court heard.
Harrison drove the truck to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before it boarded a ferry for the trip to Purfleet in Essex.
Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones told jurors today (weds) that victims were vulnerable to being ‘exploited’ by organised criminals looking to make money.
‘Illegal immigration into the United Kingdom has been a hot topic over the last few years, making headlines, and dominating domestic and European politics.
‘Amidst all the sound and fury about it generated by the media, and amidst all the statistics, numbers and debate about illegal immigration and its consequences, it is perhaps easy to lose sight of the fact that behind each story, and behind each number on a graph, there is a human being.
‘It is a sad and unavoidable truth that people from other parts of the world, perhaps countries less secure or less affluent than our own, have shown themselves prepared to go to great lengths to come to the UK, looking for a better life.
‘The risks involved, and the costs involved, financial and personal, can be enormous.
‘People leave their families behind; they might spend everything they have to fund the trip, they might leave their families saddled with debt; all because they are prepared to take extraordinary risks involved in exchange for the chance of a brighter future.
‘They do it because they are desperate. But being desperate makes them vulnerable.
‘It makes them vulnerable to those who care nothing for immigration law, but who see for themselves an opportunity to make money from others by exploiting their desperation.
‘People who are prepared to organise covert transport into the UK for those who have no right to be here, as long as they are prepared to pay to gain entry illegally.
Lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, of Mayobridge, Co Down, Northern Ireland, is charged with manslaughter
‘There are huge sums of money to be made – you will hear evidence of upwards of £10,000 per person being paid just to cross the English Channel in the back of a lorry.
‘That kind of money attracts organised criminals, generally referred to as people smugglers.
‘So this case is about people smuggling. But it is about more than that. It is also about one particular importation of people, smuggled into the back of a lorry, smuggled across the channel, which went dreadfully wrong.
‘Obviously, any time you fill an airtight container with a large number of people, where they will be left for hours and hours, with no means of escape and no means of communication with the outside world – well, that is an exercise fraught with danger.
‘On 22 October 2019, 39 Vietnamese nationals – men and women, aged between 15 and 44, some husbands and wives, some mothers and fathers, all of them sons and daughters themselves – were loaded into the back of a lorry in northern Europe.’
Truck driver Maurice Robinson was told by his boss: ‘Give them air quickly, but don’t let them out’ before opening the lorry doors to find a ‘tomb,’ the court heard.
The 26-year-old, from County Armagh, collected the migrants in a sealed container at Purfleet, Essex, 12 hours into their journey, jurors heard.
They had sailed across the English Channel in a cargo ship after Harrison dropped them off at the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.
Robinson allegedly left the dock and ‘almost immediately’ opened the back of the lorry to the sight of eight women, two boys and 29 men lying dead in pitch darkness.
‘What he found must haunt him still,’ Mr Emlyn Jones said.
The prosecutor went on: ‘Eamonn Harrison drove them to Zeebrugge in Belgium, and unhooked his trailer where it was loaded onto a cargo ship bound for Purfleet, in Essex.
‘Another lorry driver, Maurice Robinson, collected the trailer from Purfleet when it arrived just after midnight on 23rd October.
‘By then, it was getting on for 12 hours – at least – since any meaningful amount of fresh air had been let into the sealed container.
‘Robinson knew he had to check on the occupants – he’d been sent a message from his boss telling him what to do as soon as the lorry was in his control. That message said: “Give them air quickly, but don’t let them out”.
‘So Robinson drove out of Purfleet port, pulling that trailer on the back of his lorry, and almost immediately stopped, got out, and opened the doors of the trailer at the back.
‘What he found must haunt him still. For the 39 men and women inside, that lorry had become their tomb.
’28 men, eight women and three children, two of them just 15 years old, had been sealed inside the airtight container, in pitch darkness, for at least 11 and three quarter hours or a little longer.’