On the door inside the shipping container which became a death trap for the 39 Vietnamese migrants was shocking evidence of the last desperate moments of their final journey.
There, on the sealed exit separating them from the safety of the outside world, were the bloody handprints of victims who had banged frantically in vain for help as oxygen was slowly sucked from the air and they realised they were probably going to die.
They also used a pole to scrape holes in the side of the container as they desperately sought air, or escape.
Surely few details encapsulate the visceral horror of this tragedy – or the wickedness of people trafficking – more than this.
After the banging had subsided, and all hope had gone, their thoughts turned to their loved ones on another continent.
Police at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays after the 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were found inside the lorry in October 2019
Victims had banged frantically as oxygen was slowly sucked from the air and they realised they were probably going to die (pictured: An illustration of the location of the 39 bodies)
The migrants used a pole to scrape holes in the side of the container as they desperately sought air, or escape (pictured)
Inside the lorry trailer driven by Maurice Robinson where 39 Vietnamese migrants suffocated after being smuggled into UK
‘So sorry Mum,’ is how 26-year-old Pham Thi Tram My, who wanted to work in the beauty industry in the UK, began the text message to her mother shortly before she lost consciousness.
‘My route to abroad does not succeed. Mum, I love you so much. I am dying because I can’t breathe. Mum, I’m very sorry.’
Victim Pham Thi Tram My, 26, pictured, wanted to work in the beauty industry in the UK
Can you imagine receiving such a message as a parent?
Other texts recovered from mobiles, typed in pitch-darkness, remained unsent because there was little or no reception in the living hell of that deadly metal box on the cargo deck of a ferry en route to Britain from Zeebrugge in the early hours of October 23 last year.
‘Maybe we’re going to die in the container, can’t breathe any more,’ were the last words typed to the husband of 28-year-old Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh.
Young father Nguyen Tho Tuan recorded a spoken message for his wife and children. ‘It’s Tuan,’ he said. ‘I am sorry. I cannot take care of you. I am sorry. I am sorry. I cannot breathe. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.’
The wrenching farewells, in such truly terrible circumstances, are utterly heartbreaking.
The plight of the migrants reverberated around the world.
‘There was no way out, and no one to hear them, no one to help them,’ is how prosecuting barrister Bill Emlyn Jones summed up their predicament at the Old Bailey.
His words could have been the strapline for a harrowing film or TV drama.
In reality, the journey for the migrants, aged 15 to 44, ended in an industrial park in Grays, Essex where lorry driver Maurice ‘Mo’ Robinson had parked up after collecting his human cargo from the nearby Purfleet docks.
Nguyen Huy Hung (left), 15, was the youngest victim in the lorry tragedy, while Nguyen Dinh Lurong (right), 20, also died
Pham Tra My (left and right) 26, was among the 39 people who died in the lorry in Grays, Essex
Maurice Robinson’s trailer and tractor unit after it had been taken into evidence as part of the manslaughter investigation
On the windscreen of his cab was an ‘Ultimate Dream’ sticker, a perverse reference to the fact the poor souls in the back of the Scania truck had come in search of a better life here in the UK and had paid upwards of £10,000 to be taken across the Channel.
The cause of death for the migrants was given as a combination of suffocation and overheating (pictured: Victim Nguyen Van Hiep)
Why did they die?
Because of the greed of the gang behind the operation – of which Robinson, from County Armagh, Northern Ireland, was a part – who had packed twice as many into the container to make up for a previous failed run, the court heard. More people equals more money, after all – but much less oxygen.
It was a gamble ringleader Ronan Hughes was prepared to take. ‘Give them air quickly but don’t let them out,’ he instructed Robinson, via text message.
When Robinson opened the trailer it was too late. The gamble had failed. Bodies were piled up inside. Among the dead were three children and eight women.
Hughes, ostensibly the director of a haulage firm just over the border in southern Ireland, was making up to £1million a month trafficking migrants.
‘The operation essentially became a bus service for migrants,’ one lorry driver told us. ‘There was a joke going round that you needed a bus licence, not an HGV licence, to work for Ronan Hughes.’
Hughes and Robinson had already pleaded guilty to manslaughter before the Old Bailey trial which ended in the conviction of four others yesterday, two for manslaughter and two for being part of a wider people-smuggling conspiracy.
The disaster exposed a back door into the country.
Belgium’s ports, according to the National Crime Agency’s annual strategic report last year, are now a ‘greater focus for the activities of organised people smugglers’, a consequence of security being stepped up in France, with Zeebrugge identified as a key embarkation point.
Video played to the court showed the moment officers arrived on scene in Essex and (inset) body cam footage shows an officer looking for signs of life inside the lorry. Driver Maurice Robinson called 999 after discovering the bodies in his lorry
CCTV shows Eamonn Harrison dropping off a trailer at the port of Zeebrugge in Belgium on October 17 last year
CCTV shows Christopher Kennedy in his lorry’s cab arriving at the port of Purfleet in Essex
Maurice Robinson (left) and Ronan Hughes at an Ibis Hotel in Thurrock where they meet Nica
The group of migrants were were from five provinces in the central, coastal area of Vietnam and two provinces near Hanoi
In Vietnam, where there have been a wave of arrests in connection with the 39 fatalities, Asian-based traffickers call the last leg of the 6,000-mile trek to the UK the ‘CO2’ route.
Timeline of the Essex lorry tragedy
Here is a timeline of events surrounding the deaths of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children in the back of a lorry in Essex.
- May 9 2018: Eamonn Harrison is stopped at Coquelles in France driving a lorry into the Channel Tunnel. It is found to have 18 Vietnamese nationals hidden in the back sitting on boxes of waffles. He is issued with a fine which is never paid.
- May 1 2019: Harrison is caught drink-driving in Drantum, Germany, after he lost control and his lorry toppled over. He is convicted and ordered to pay 855 euro.
- October 9 2019: At 9.04pm, Harrison’s GPS tracker places his truck in La Chappelle d’Armentieres in northern France. He beds down for the night in Bailleul.
- October 10: Harrison makes a series of stops in Nieppe, La Chapelle d’Armentieres and Lissewege before he delivers a human cargo to Zeebrugge in Belgium to be transported to Purfleet in Essex.
- October 11: At 7am, the trailer containing the migrants is picked up in Purfleet by lorry driver Christopher Kennedy and taken to a drop-off point near Orsett Golf Club.
- At 8.18am, Gheorghe Nica, Alexandru Hanga, Marius Draghici and Gazmir Nuzi are caught on CCTV allegedly arriving in convoy.
- At 8.22am, Marie Andrews and Stewart Cox, who live on Collingwood Farm, Orsett, see a red lorry with a white trailer pull up, together with four black Mercedes vehicles. As they watched, 15 to 20 people jump out of the lorry and run to the Mercedes.
- October 14: At 7.25am Kennedy travels from Dover to Calais with the same lorry, but a different trailer.
- At 11.50pm, Kennedy is stopped at Coquelles, en route to Folkestone via the Eurotunnel. Twenty Vietnamese nationals are discovered in his trailer and taken away by the border authorities, but Kennedy is allowed to continue with his journey. It later transpires two of the migrants are among the victims.
- October 17: Harrison makes a second successful run, dropping off a container load of migrants at Zeebrugge with a consignment of biscuits.
- October 18: At 7.24am, Kennedy picks up the trailer and takes it to the same pick-up point at Orsett. Valentin Calota is one of the drivers brought by Nica to collect the new arrivals and drive them over the Dartford crossing and into south-east London.
- In the afternoon, Barbara Richmond-Clarke, warehouse manager at Lenham Storage, in Kent, rejects the delivery of crushed and dirty biscuit boxes.
- In the evening, haulier boss Ronan Hughes, lorry driver Maurice Robinson, Draghici and Nica – now carrying a heavy bag full of cash – meet at the Ibis Hotel in Thurrock.
- At 9.53pm, Harrison is found drunk in Bruges, Belgium, and is stopped by police.
- October 19: At 9.09am, police find Harrison’s truck has been parked illegally and ask him to move.
- October 22: From 5.47am, five of the victims’ phones are used in Paris.
- Around 9am, more are detected on the Belgian border between Dunkerque and Lille.
- From 9.21am, CCTV shows three taxis arriving at Bierne, northern France, followed by Harrison’s lorry.
- At 1.41pm Harrison’s lorry arrives at Zeebrugge port.
- At 2.52pm, the trailer containing 39 people, aged between 15 and 44, is loaded onto the MV Clementine which sails late, at 3.36pm.
- At 7.37 pm, young father Nguyen Tho Tuan records a message for his family saying: ‘It’s Tuan. I am sorry. I cannot take care of you. I am sorry. I am sorry. I cannot breathe. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.’
- Between 9.42pm and 10.42pm, the temperature in the trailer peaks at 38.5 Celsius.
- Between 10pm and 10.30pm the atmosphere is estimated to have reached toxic levels, killing all 39 victims.
- October 23: At 12.18am, the Clementine docks at Purfleet.
- At 1.07am, Robinson collects the trailer, some 12 hours after it was sealed. He is instructed by Hughes via Snapchat to ‘give them air quickly don’t let them out’.
- Robinson drives out of Purfleet, stops and opens the doors at the back. He stands for 90 seconds before getting back in the cab.
- From 1.15 am, Robinson drives around for seven minutes before returning to the same location on Eastern Avenue. He opens the rear doors again, calls Hughes for one minutes and 42 seconds and takes a minute-long call from Nica.
- Over 15 minutes, there is a flurry of telephone contact between Hughes, Robinson, Kennedy and Nica, who leaves the area of Collingwood Farm.
- At 1.36am, Robinson telephones 999 and requests an ambulance.
- At 1.50am, police arrived on the scene and find Robinson looking ‘calm’ by the trailer.
- Later that morning, Kennedy tells a friend via text: ‘must have been 2 many and run out of air.’
- Nica takes an evening flight from Luton to Romania.
- October 24: Draghici flies to Bucharest, in Romania, and remains at large.
- November 22: Kennedy is arrested after the lorry he is driving on the M40 in Oxfordshire is stopped.
- February 7, 2020: Nica is extradited to the UK after being detained in Frankfurt under a European Arrest Warrant.
- March 14: Calota is arrested on arrival at Birmingham airport from Romania.
- April 8: Robinson pleads guilty at the Old Bailey to 39 counts of manslaughter.
- June 23: Hughes is extradited from the Republic of Ireland to the UK and pleads guilty to the manslaughter in August.
- July 22: Harrison is extradited to the UK having been detained at Dublin Port, Ireland, under European Arrest Warrant, on October 26 2019.
- October 5: Nica and Harrison go on trial at the Old Bailey for manslaughter. Harrison, Calota and Kennedy are accused of being involved in a wider people-smuggling conspiracy, which Nica, Robinson, Hughes and two others have admitted.
- December 21: they are convicted of manslaughter
This refers to the ferry crossing in refrigerated containers to prevent thermal imaging equipment detecting the body heat of stowaways.
The refrigeration is switched off on the crossing once trucks have been inspected and cleared.
This is the modus operandi the gang, under the control of Hughes, chose. It meant the air slowly turned toxic and the temperature rose to an ‘unbearable’ 101F (38.5C).
The cause of death for the migrants, who were wearing little or no clothing when they were found, was given as a combination of suffocation and overheating.
Many were from the impoverished provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh in north-central Vietnam.
Annual incomes in both these rural rice-growing areas are well below the national average.
In the first eight months of last year, almost 42,000 people left Ha Tinh to look for work elsewhere.
Britain, with established immigrant communities and a reputation for fair treatment, is seen as an attractive destination.
The truth for many women, however, is that they end up painting nails by day and working as prostitutes at night.
Nevertheless, the families of those who died on the crossing mortgaged their homes and land to scrape together enough money to pay locally based traffickers up to £30,000 to take their loved ones out of Vietnam on what was effectively the first leg of the journey to mainland Europe.
A particularly grotesque aspect of the tragedy is that some are still in hock to these traffickers – even though their children or husbands or wives are now dead.
The family of Le Van Ha, who was 30, are in this predicament, court papers reveal. They borrowed around £15,000 for him to get to Germany, before he travelled on to the UK. The debt is still owed.
The family of Nguyen Van Hiep, who was 24, also borrowed heavily, around £10,000, for him to initially get to Germany. Most of the debt is still owed.
One of the youngest victims was Tran Ngoc Hieu. He was 17. Hieu left home in May 2018.
His family paid traffickers £20,000 when he reached Europe and another £20,000 when they received word he had left Belgium for England.
It took 17 months, during which he was passed from gang to gang, held in squalid basements in Russia, Ukraine and the Czech Republic.
‘The conditions were inhuman,’ his uncle Tran Ngoc Truong, who lives in Walthamstow, east London, told us.
‘They kept 20 or 30 of them in a basement. They were given noodles or rice in one big bowl a day. There was nowhere to wash and he suffered from eczema and skin problems.
‘He messaged his grandparents to tell them he was finally on his way to England and he was very excited. It was the last we heard from him.’
The parents of Pham Thi Tram My – who sent that pitiful text from the back of the lorry – mortgaged their land to pay for her trip.
Tram My set off from her home in the Ha Tinh region on October 3, 2019 – a little under three weeks before the tragedy – travelling first to China, then flying to France. The fee was £16,500, which was paid over at an address in Vietnam.
The precise chronology of what happened is unclear because neither she nor anyone else is alive to tell their story.
But the authorities have pieced together an accurate picture of the migrants’ movements on the day they died from mobile records, text messages between Hughes and his accomplices, CCTV and images from automatic number plate recognition cameras.
By the morning of October 22, most if not all the migrants had arrived in Paris when they were taken by taxi to an agricultural shed in Bierne, near Dunkirk in northern France.
They were met by Eamonn Harrison, 23, another member of the Irish gang. He put them in the container, which was hooked up to his truck, and drove 50 miles across the border to Zeebrugge.
A Vietnamese man, referred to as Witness X at the Old Bailey trial, told how he had been transported to Britain in the same container, with about 15 other migrants, 11 days earlier.
His thumbprint was located in the container in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Witness X said there were two services on offer – one in which the lorry driver was ignorant of the human cargo and the so-called ‘VIP’ service, where the driver was aware. He chose the ‘VIP’ service. So did all those who died.
The container was loaded on to the Purfleet-bound cargo ferry MV Clementine at 2.52pm, with the sailing 36 minutes late at 3.36pm.
A forensic scientist calculated it would have taken about nine hours for the air to turn toxic, resulting in death soon afterwards.
Pham Thi Tram My and all the others were in there for 12 hours,
Robinson, the driver with the ‘Ultimate Dream’ sticker on his windscreen, collected the container when it docked in Purfleet just after midnight.
CCTV in Grays showed him park up, walk to the back of the lorry and open the door slightly.
‘The smugglers said this was a safe route, that people would go by airplane, car,’ the father of Tram My said in an interview with CNN in Vietnam.
‘If I had known she would go by this route, I would never have let her go.’
Several days earlier, his daughter had made it into Britain only to be picked up police and deported back to France.
She’d decided to give it one last try… it was the saddest of twists in an already heartbreaking story.
How police and border officers missed a string of chances to catch the gang
Police and border officers missed a string of chances to stop the traffickers responsible for the deaths of 39 migrants in the back of a lorry, it can be revealed today.
Four smugglers are facing life sentences for allowing the Vietnamese stowaways to suffocate inside a sealed shipping container on a ferry bound for Britain.
One after another the migrants –who paid the traffickers up to £13,000 each – died in temperatures of 101F.
Ringleader Gheorghe Nica is seen on CCTV buying mobile phone credit ahead of the tragedy in October last year
Lorry driver Eamonn Harrison (right) is pictured on CCTV at a Belgian truck stop shop
Yesterday two men – one of the lorry’s drivers, Eamonn Harrison,, 24, and a ringleader of the operation, Gheorghe Nica, 43 – were found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter at the Old Bailey in London.
Q&A: How people-smuggling gang was brought to justice
The investigation into the deaths of 39 migrants resulted in one of the largest manslaughter cases. Two of those involved in bringing the people smugglers to justice have shared their views in an interview.
– Who was behind the people-smuggling ring?
Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, from Essex Police, said: ‘The investigation has found it was quite a complex organised crime group behind the people smuggling. Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica were the organisers and the brains behind the crime group and then they had a logistics corps of people involved in the transportation and that included Christopher Kennedy, Eamonn Harrison, Maurice Robinson and others.’
– What drove them to it?
Mr Stoten said: ‘Motivation was purely financial. They were quite willing to put the health and the safety of other people at risk in order to drive that greed. If you look at the victims and the previous people who were transported to the UK, you would not transport animals in that manner. But they (the smugglers) were quite happy to do that and put them at significant risk.’
– What about the 39 Vietnamese nationals who died?
Kelly Matthews, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: ‘This is an unimaginably tragic case. Thirty-nine vulnerable people desperate for a new life put their trust in an unscrupulous network of people smugglers. They died through a lack of oxygen, desperately trying to escape from a sealed container. Many, when their plight became hopeless, sent messages to loved ones via their mobile phones.’
– What was the effect on the officers who found the 39 bodies?
Mr Stoten said: ‘The officers that first attended that incident did an amazing job. Almost all of those officers that attended were really young in service and it was quite possibly the first time that some of them had ever seen a deceased person. So, to have been met with 39 people … an absolutely horrendous scene in front of them. I’m quite certain that this will stay with them for the rest of their career and quite probably the rest of lives.’
– Why were there so many people in that particular trailer?
Mr Stoten said: ‘The crime group had an almost tried and tested system of usually between 15 and 20 people and that has worked for them. It’s still dangerous, very dangerous. My personal view is that there was something that happened just prior to the 22nd (October) that meant there were another 19 or 20 people that did not come across as they were planning to and, because of pure greed, they decided they were going put all of them into the container. They could have held off for a week or two weeks and then transported them in a less dangerous manner but they didn’t because they wanted the money. So they put 39 of them in a container knowing full well that was an extremely dangerous thing to do.’
– How much money did the gang stand to make?
Mr Stoten said: ‘Between £10,000 and £12,000 per person, the lion’s share of which would have gone to Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica.’ Together with two successful runs on October 11 and 18 last year, some 80 people were smuggled into Britain, paying between £10,000 and £20,000 each – ‘a huge amount of money’, he said.
– Is there evidence that the gang had got away with it for longer?
‘We’ve certainly seen evidence they have been doing this for some time,’ said Mr Stoten. ‘Their greed did not diminish but their complacency did increase.’
– Were there missed opportunities to stop them?
Mr Stoten said police carried out a search after a resident in Orsett reported a drop of migrants on October 11 last year. He said: ‘We did actually respond quite quickly to that, and some intelligence work was completed immediately and that related to an ANPR (automatic number-plate recognition) search. Unfortunately the people had left the area. What we do know is Kennedy’s lorry does not activate ANPR. We do not know the exact reason for that; it could be that the plates have been adjusted or it could be as one of the witnesses said it was covered up so there were less opportunities to identify that through technology.’
– Has the tragedy led to changes in policing procedures?
Mr Stoten said: ‘Going forward, we actually changed not only the procedures of Essex Police but we have been a forerunner in changing the way the country responds to organised immigration crime. So now, when people are stopped and found to be in the back of lorries or vans etc, we are looking at that. Most often the driver is arrested, and that didn’t happen before.’
– How strong was the evidence in this case?
‘Four people pleaded guilty before the trial. I don’t think they did that because they thought it was the right thing to do; they did that because of the sheer weight of the evidence against them,’ said Mr Stoten. Ms Matthews said: ‘There was substantial evidence gathered from overseas as well as the UK to bring the case and prove the case. ‘We were able to show that if you put people in a sealed container with no way of opening it there is a risk of some harm, whether that be one person or 100 people inside.’
– What is your reaction to the convictions?
Mr Stoten said: ‘I’m pleased we have got justice for the victims’ families and for the victims, and I hope that gives them some closure.’ Ms Matthews said: ‘Nothing can bring back the lives lost on that day or the loss caused by the horrible, unlawful and dangerous actions of these defendants, but we hope these convictions bring some measure of solace to the families in the knowledge that justice has been done. By these convictions these men bear the full weight of this terrible tragedy.’
– Do these convictions bring the case to a close?
Ms Matthews said: ‘There are a number of individuals that Essex Police are still pursuing. The CPS are currently looking into three additional people within the UK. There were also significant sums of money made from this catastrophic event. We are committed to pursuing any moneys obtained and ensuring no-one profits from this terrible tragedy.’
– What about the international connection?
Ms Matthews said: ‘There are various investigations and prosecutions taking place across Europe by international partners into this criminal network. A number of people were arrested and prosecuted in Vietnam by the Vietnamese.’ There have been eight convictions in Vietnam.
Lorry driver Maurice Robinson, 26, and haulage chief Ronan Hughes, 41, pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing.
Had their trip last October been successful, the gang stood to make around £1million in just a month.
The verdicts bring the number convicted over the tragic smuggling operation – which stretched from Vietnam to its fatal conclusion on an industrial estate in Grays, Essex, via Russia, France and Belgium – to eight in Britain.
Prosecutors here are considering charges against a further three people, while eight smugglers have been convicted in Vietnam for their roles.
It can now be reported that officials missed a series of chances to stop the gang during earlier smuggling operations before the fatal ferry crossing from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge to Purfleet.
In May 2018 Harrison, a driver from Northern Ireland who took part in the France-Belgium leg of last October’s fatal journey, was stopped at the Channel Tunnel in Calais where the Border Force found 18 Vietnamese migrants in his trailer.
Harrison pretended he had no idea how the migrants got into his lorry and he was let off with a fine.
Some 17 months later – and a week before the deaths of the 39 – another driver linked to the gang, Christopher Kennedy, was found with 20 Vietnamese at the tunnel entrance.
Kennedy, 24, also pleaded ignorance and he too was allowed to continue. Police also ignored repeated tip-offs from a member of the public in Orsett, a village near Grays, about suspicious activity near her home.
Two weeks before the tragedy Marie Andrews called police three times to say she had seen migrants jumping out of a lorry and into a fleet of Mercedes driven by traffickers.
Officers went to the scene and carried out a search but did not check CCTV footage from the locality. Miss Andrews told the trial the police ‘had not been listening’ to her concerns.
Orsett was found to be the last staging post for the gang to transfer migrants to London.
Last night Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, of Essex Police, admitted chances had been missed to catch the smugglers and said authorities were ‘blind’ to the threat.
He said before the tragedy, lorry drivers found with migrants in their vehicles were treated as victims because it was assumed they had no knowledge of their human cargo.
‘Now nationally, lorry drivers are instantly treated as a suspect,’ he added.
The missed chances also took place despite warnings from the National Crime Agency and border forces about the route from Vietnam, often via Russia, several years ago.
Nica, of Basildon, and Harrison, were also convicted of being part of a wider people-smuggling gang yesterday, along with Kennedy, of County Armagh, and Valentin Calota, 38, of Birmingham.
Two others linked to the gang – Gazmir Nuzi and Alexandru Hanga – admitted conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.
All will be sentenced next month. The maximum for people smuggling is 14 years in prison, with manslaughter carrying a possible life sentence.
How Home Secretary Priti Patel caused a legal storm during trial by posting a tweet about ‘ruthless criminals’
The Home Secretary caused a legal storm with an ‘ill-advised’ tweet about the deaths of 39 migrants while the people-smuggling trial was going on.
On October 23, the anniversary of the tragedy, Priti Patel’s Twitter account posted: ‘One year ago today, 39 people lost their lives in horrific circumstances at the hands of ruthless criminals.
‘My thoughts remain with everyone who was affected by that day, particularly the loved ones of the people who so tragically died.’
The comments were made as the prosecution of four alleged people-smugglers linked to the deaths was continuing at the Old Bailey.
Commenting on the post, one man wrote: ‘Dear Home Secretary. There is an active criminal trial ongoing.
‘Your comments are ill advised and in case you are not au fait with such things, in contempt of court.’
The post was retweeted and liked more than 300 times before it came to the attention of a defence lawyer and the trial was halted.
In the absence of the jury, Alisdair Williamson QC complained about the description of ‘ruthless criminals’, especially as she was a senior Government minister.
He said: ‘It is unhelpful to say the least and a lot worse could be said.
‘l don’t know what course could be taken. I know I don’t tweet personally. If action could be taken before the jury gets home.
‘I don’t know whether the court can invite the Government to delete that tweet?’
Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones said: ‘Contact was made with the Home Secretary’s office but I have not been updated on any response.’
Before he sent jurors home for the weekend, Mr Justice Sweeney warned them to ignore comments on social media from politicians.
He said: ‘It is a year today since the bodies of the victims were found.
‘No doubt the anniversary will be commented on whether in mainstream media or social media.
‘And whether by politicians, likewise journalists or others, inevitably there is a risk that such comments may assert or imply guilt of amongst others the men who are in your charge, two of whom are charged with the manslaughter of the victims.
‘You must ignore any such comments.
‘It’s a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system that those on trial are presumed to be innocent until proven to be guilty and it is you and you alone who are going to decide whether they are guilty or not guilty.’
The tweet was live for more than an hour before it was deleted.
Later, the lawyer and author known as the Secret Barrister tweeted: ‘I suggest that @pritipatel start following @attorneygeneral.
‘Might save future embarrassment/imprisonment.’
The incident came amid growing tension between Government and the legal profession.
The Home Secretary and Prime Minister Boris Johnson had faced repeated calls to apologise for ‘hostile’ comments about the profession.
On the same day as Ms Patel’s tweet, Mr Justice Sweeney had also presided over a preliminary hearing for a man charged with a terrorist plot to kill a solicitor over his role in representing immigrants.
Who were the 39 people who died in the Essex lorry container?
These are the names of the victims of the Essex truck tragedy are:
Pham Thi Tra My, a 26-year-old woman from Ha Tinh
Nguyen Dinh Lurong, a 20-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Nguyen Huy Phong, a 35-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Vo Nhan Du, a 19-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Tran Manh Hung, a 37-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Tran Khanh Tho, a 18-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Vo Van Linh, a 25-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Nguyen Van Nhan, a 33-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Bui Phan Thang, a 37-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Nguyen Huy Hung, a 15-year-old boy from Ha Tinh
Tran Thi Tho, a 21-year-old woman from Nghe An
Bui Thi Nhung, a 19-year-old woman from Nghe An
Vo Ngoc Nam, a 28-year-old man from Nghe An
Nguyen Dinh Tu, a 26-year-old man from Nghe An
Le Van Ha, a 30-year-old man from Nghe An
Tran Thi Ngoc, a 19-year-old woman from Nghe An
Nguyen Van Hung, a 33-year-old man from Nghe An
Hoang Van Tiep, a 18-year-old man from Nghe An
Cao Tien Dung, a 37-year-old man from Nghe An
Cao Huy Thanh, a 33-year-old man from Nghe An
Tran Thi Mai Nhung, a 18-year-old woman from Nghe An
Nguyen Minh Quang, a 20-year-old man from Nghe An
Le Trong Thanh, a 44-year-old man from Dien Chau
Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, a 28-year-old woman from Nghe An
Hoang Van Hoi, a 24-year-old man from Nghe An
Nguyen Tho Tuan, a 25-year-old man from Nghe An
Dang Huu Tuyen, a 22-year-old man from Nghe An
Nguyen Trong Thai, a 26-year-old man from Nghe An
Nguyen Van Hiep, a 24-year-old man from Nghe An
Nguyen Thi Van, a 35-year-old woman from Nghe An
Tran Hai Loc, a 35-year-old man from Nghe An
Duong Minh Tuan, a 27-year-old man from Quang Binh
Nguyen Ngoc Ha, a 32-year-old man from Quang Binh
Nguyen Tien Dung, a 33-year-old man from Quang, Binh
Phan Thi Thanh, a 41-year-old woman from Hai Phong
Nguyen Ba Vu Hung, a 34-year-old man from Thua Tien Hue
Dinh Dinh Thai Quyen, a 18-year-old man from Hai Phong
Tran Ngoc Hieu, a 17-year-old boy from Hai Duong
Dinh Dinh Binh 15-year-old boy from Hai Phong
Hands entwined, a couple comforted each other as their dream of a life in Britain slipped away in the back of a dark, hot trailer.
Tran Hai Loc and Nguyen Thi Van, both 35, were still huddled together when they were discovered among the 39 dead on October 23 last year.
Their bodies were carefully removed from the trailer, still holding hands, and taken to hospital together.
The couple had travelled by plane to work in Hungary as fruit pickers for one-and-a-half months, having organised the placement through a labour company in Hanoi at a cost of 7,000 US dollars (£6,000) each.
Their families last heard from them on October 18 last year when they phoned to say their plans had changed.
Four days later, they and the other men, women and children had made their way to a pick-up point en route to Zeebrugge in Belgium, with one group coming from Paris and another from Brussels.
Jurors at the Old Bailey heard that there could have been a 40th migrant on the trip, but for the fact that he was late for his rendezvous with Eamonn Harrison’s lorry in Bierne, northern France.
During the cross-Channel trip on board the Clementine, the group had desperately tried to raise the alarm, even calling the Vietnamese emergency number, as they ran out of air.
When they found there was no mobile phone signal in the trailer, some recorded goodbye messages to their families.
Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25, told his family: ‘I am sorry. I cannot take care of you. I am sorry. I am sorry. I cannot breathe.
‘I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.’
A metal pole had been used to try to punch through the roof of the refrigerated container, but only managed to dent the interior.
Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones had said: ‘There was no way out, and no-one to hear them, no-one to help them.’
When police were alerted to the deaths by Maurice Robinson, they found the migrants, aged 15 to 44, were half-naked and frothing at the mouth.
They had been dead long enough for rigor mortis to have set in.
Former Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore, who dealt with their identification, said: ‘It was shocking to say the least.’
He said it was important to treat the bodies with ‘dignity and respect’.
‘Dying in such a horrendous way… You could not help but have a great sense there was no panic there.
‘They seem to have died with dignity and respect for each other, just the way the bodies were laid.
‘There is one couple holding hands. They stayed together throughout the transportation to hospital and they stayed together throughout the post-mortems.’
Mr Pasmore said that seeing the tragedy had affected officers, and the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder was uppermost in his mind.
It also had a ‘significant impact’ on the families in Vietnam, many of whom had borrowed thousands of pounds to fund the journey.
Officers handled 391 calls from concerned relatives wanting to identify loved ones.
During the trial, jurors were provided with a snapshot of the victims and their dreams of a better life.
They included a bricklayer, a restaurant worker, a nail bar technician, a budding beautician, and a university graduate, who had worked in IT to save up and fund his own passage.
Their journeys across the world, via travel agencies in Vietnam, had included various stops in Russia, China, Germany, Poland, Hungary and Romania.
They would fly to one country, work there so they could build up cash reserves and send some money home, before then attempting the perilous journey to Britain.
Many of their families borrowed thousands of pounds to fund their passage, relying on their potential future earnings once they got in Britain.
Some of the migrants had made repeated failed attempts to be smuggled into the country, with one being turned back five times.
Witness X, a Vietnamese migrant who was smuggled by the gang on October 11 last year, provided an insight into why so many people were prepared to risk everything.
He was attracted to Britain partly because of the language.
Firstly, he had moved from Poland to France after getting a Schengen visa as a business student.
He then arranged his ‘VIP’ trip across the Channel through a Vietnamese connection on Facebook, who put him in contact with someone in Dulwich, south-east London, called Phong.
He got a taxi to a pick up point where he was ushered onto a trailer by the driver, who told them to go ‘quickly’ but ‘keep quiet’.
Before arriving at Zeebrugge, the driver – said to be Eamonn Harrison – stopped once to provide them with water and further instructions, the court heard.
The migrants were provided bags to urinate in and told to huddle together in the centre of the trailer when they heard a signal.
After he arrived in Britain safely, witness X was made to stay at Phong’s flat in Dulwich until his parents in Vietnam had transferred the £13,000 payment.
Asked what his plan was, the migrant told jurors: ‘I’m going to go to the Home Office to apply for my papers.’
For every person successfully smuggled into Britain, the lorry drivers potentially pocketed £1,500, police said.
Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, of Essex Police, said: ‘So you see this unacceptable disgusting trade was quite financially rewarding for these crime gangs.’
He said the ‘scale and complexity’ of the threat posed by the gangs and the ‘callous nature of their business model’ should never be under-estimated.
Risks taken by people-smuggling gang were ‘not unusual’, says immigration enforcement official
The risks taken by the crime group responsible for the deaths of 39 migrants found in a lorry container in Essex were ‘sadly not unusual’, a senior Immigration Enforcement official has said.
Steve Dann, director of crime and financial investigations within the Immigration Enforcement unit at the Home Office, said people being trafficked were seen as a commodity, no different to drugs or tobacco.
‘In relation to the risk, sadly the organised crime groups have complete disregard for the people, the commodity as they see it,’ he said.
Steve Dann, director of crime and financial investigations within the Immigration Enforcement unit at the Home Office, said people being trafficked were seen as a commodity, no different to drugs or tobacco
There will be more smuggled migrant deaths, warns Irish Road Haulage Association
There will be more deaths of migrants who are being smuggled in lorry trailers, the Irish Road Haulage Association (IRHA) has warned.
IRHA president Eugene Drennan said drivers lived in ‘constant fear’ of discovering people being smuggled in their lorries, as there are not enough protections in place to stop the issue.
He was speaking after the convictions in the UK of two men who were found guilty of manslaughter for their part in the deaths of 39 people who suffocated in the back of a trailer as they were shipped from Belgium to the UK in October last year.
The Vietnamese migrants, aged between 15 and 44, were offered false promises of a better life in Britain and were betrayed by criminals who pursued profits of more than £1 million that month alone.
On Monday, Romanian ringleader Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Basildon in Essex and lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, from County Down, were found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter.
The jury at the Old Bailey in London, which deliberated for nearly 23 hours, also convicted them of a wider people-smuggling plot with lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, from County Armagh, and Valentin Calota, 38, from Birmingham.
Mr Drennan said: ‘I would welcome the convictions and I would congratulate any of the police who worked on the case and any other people from other agencies that worked on this case because it cannot be easy to piece together.
‘It is every haulier’s and every driver’s – proper legitimate driver’s – worst nightmare finding migrants on board their cargo.’
He added: ‘We’re only lucky that we don’t have other people killed already. That is still waiting to happen. It’s still being done.’
He called on European leaders to finally take action before there are more deaths. ‘Nothing has been put in place to stop the flow [of migrants], to return the people if necessary, to try to put a marker on it, to have a system in place of legal migration,’ he said.
Mr Drennan said those involved in illegal smuggling ‘don’t take notice of what type of trailer they are putting the migrants into’.
‘This will lead to further acts of manslaughter,’ he warned.
‘Whether it’s drugs or tobacco, this is just another commodity and they take no interest at all in the health and wellbeing of the migrants.
‘I’ve seen some horrendous conditions, people being brought in.
‘People have been brought in unresponsive because they’re in a coffin-like hide within a vehicle or within a vessel, so sadly no this is not unusual.
‘The numbers were high for a single incident but the crime groups, their methodology, they have complete disregard.’
The criminal gang brought the container into the UK through Purfleet port in Essex.
‘I can’t say whether they saw this (entry point) as a soft touch,’ Mr Dann added.
He said that since the incident in October 2019, his agency has worked with colleagues in Zeebrugge in Belgium, where the container began its journey to the UK.
‘We’ve increased our deployments of resources over in Zeebrugge. The same way in the UK we’ve increased our response,’ he said.
‘We’ve developed a multi-agency hub to develop intelligence, to share intelligence quicker, there’s a number of different initiatives that have taken place with this.’
He said that the ‘link hadn’t been drawn’ when French authorities foiled an attempt to smuggle migrants across the Channel on October 14, nine days before the 39 migrants were found dead on October 23.
On October 14, a vehicle driven by haulier Christopher Kennedy was stopped at Coquelles, near Calais in France, and 20 Vietnamese migrants were found in the back, the trial at the Old Bailey was told was told.
They were frisked and taken away.
Kennedy, 24, of County Armagh had denied being part of the people-smuggling ring linked to the deaths of 39 migrants.
‘At that point the link hadn’t been drawn,’ said Mr Dann. ‘He (Kennedy) was in, I think, it was a Transit van coming in through Coquelles.’
He went on: ‘We have a joint intelligence cell with the French, so we do share intelligence daily and lots of intelligence as well.
‘In relation to linking this, what we have to do with these incidents is start to develop the intelligence into an operation that allows us to identify the crime group behind it.
‘Sometimes, depending on what we’re faced with, it can be done immediately and we do an immediate response, other times it’s about bringing different pieces of the jigsaw together to identify the crime group.’
He said his agency is ‘making every effort to disrupt’ crime groups and that Immigration Enforcement has disrupted 430 organised crime groups so far this year through arrests and preventative action.
‘We see the threats move, it’s quite an agile threat, crime groups are very agile,’ he said.
‘What we have to do is try to stay ahead of the game and be as agile as them.’
Who were the key players in the Essex lorry deaths case
Gheorghe Nica was the leader of the people smuggling ring
Romanian Nica was said to be the ‘key organiser’.
A friend and ex-colleague of Irish haulage boss Ronan Hughes, he spent years working in Ireland and England as a lorry driver and mechanic.
The 43-year-old was also involved in the ‘large scale’ smuggling of cigarettes and whisky, according to Valentin Calota.
Nica, who knew the lorry yards in Essex well, paid Calota and others in the Romanian community cash in hand to drive migrants to London under his close supervision.
He also employed his Romanian friend Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28, of Tilbury in Essex, who admitted his role in the gang.
Nica’s senior management position meant he was trusted to look after the money, the prosecution said.
The divorced father-of-three, from Basildon in Essex, admitted involvement in two successful runs but denied he was a ringleader, pointing the finger at his Romanian friend Marius Draghici and Hughes.
The defendant, who had joint British citizenship, claimed he had been roped in to help while he awaited new passports.
Nica told jurors the family had decided to move back to Romania to get treatment for his young daughter who was born prematurely and suffered from cerebral palsy.
On October 23, he agreed to allow Maurice Robinson to unload near Collingwood Farm, assuming it was cigarettes or alcohol, he claimed.
Logistics boss Hughes had been a lorry driver before he set up his own haulage business, operating on either side of the Irish border.
In 2009, he was jailed for 30 months for smuggling some six million cigarettes from Calais to Dover.
He admitted evading revenue of around £927,000 and was sentenced at Maidstone Crown Court, it can now be reported.
A decade later, the 41-year-old married defendant, of Dalton Park, Armagh, Co Armagh, recruited a team of young Irish lorry drivers to take on the riskiest roles in the people-smuggling operation while directing them via burner phones.
He got his hands dirty on October 18 last year when he tried to cover up human contamination in a load of biscuits with Christopher Kennedy.
He knew there was a serious risk to the 39 migrants on October 22, telling lorry driver Maurice Robinson, who picked them up, to ‘give them air quickly’ – but not to let them out.
Hughes pleaded guilty to manslaughter and people-smuggling in August.
The 24-year-old lorry driver, from Newry, Co Down, was said to be Hughes’ ‘man on the Continent’.
On each of the three people-smuggling runs, it was Harrison who picked up migrants and took them in trailers to Zeebrugge in Belgium to be shipped to the UK.
Described in court as ‘young, heavy-drinking and irresponsible’, Harrison had struggled with ADHD at school and at the age of 18 followed in his father’s footsteps and became an HGV driver.
In May 2018, he was handed a civil penalty notice after Border Force officials at Coquelles in France found 18 Vietnamese migrants sitting on boxes of waffles in his trailer.
Having been stopped twice in Germany in 2018 over driving incidents, in May last year he lost control of Hughes’ lorry in Lower Saxony.
He was convicted of drink-driving and ordered to pay 855 euros (£768), which remains outstanding.
The crash meant Hughes had Harrison ‘over a barrel’ because he owed him thousands of pounds for the damage, jurors were told.
Harrison, who described being lonely on the road, claimed he did not know about the migrants in his trailer on any occasion, saying he thought he was helping to pick up ‘stolen lorry parts’ for Hughes.
He blamed others for loading the migrants into his trailer, saying he watched Netflix in his cab with the curtains down when the 39 migrants boarded.
But a migrant transported on October 11 said the driver had told them to huddle together before dropping them at Zeebrugge.
Harrison told jurors he was ‘devastated’ for the families of the victims.
‘Team player’ Kennedy, from County Armagh, was another of Hughes’ drivers, even though his actual boss was Irish haulier, Caolan Gormley, who was arrested and released under investigation.
The 24-year-old’s role was to pick up the human cargo at Purfleet docks and take them to Orsett for onward transfer to London on the two successful runs.
In between those trips, he was also caught with 20 Vietnamese people in his trailer at Coquelles in France on October 14 last year – two of whom ended up among the 39 dead days later.
On the day of the tragedy, it was Kennedy who Hughes called within seconds of finding out from Robinson that 39 migrants had died in one of his trailers.
And asked by a friend what he thought had happened, he said there ‘must have been too many and run out of air’.
Growing up on a small holding in Keady, Kennedy felt the pressure of being the oldest of four siblings, particularly after his father had an accident and could no longer work.
But he racked up three driving offences from the age of 13 when he was caught behind the wheel of a tractor illegally.
It meant that, despite gaining his HGV licence at the age of 19, finding work was challenging.
In June last year, Mr Gormley, also from County Armagh, gave him a job driving goods around England for £550 a week.
Kennedy claimed he agreed to shift illegal cigarettes for ‘extra cash’ and did not realise there were migrants.
He became suspicious when he helped Hughes tidy up soiled biscuits on October 18 last year but said the haulage boss ‘shrugged it off’.
The 26-year-old lorry driver, from Craigavon in Northern Ireland, found the bodies of the 39 migrants after he picked up the trailer they were in at Purfleet.
He admitted manslaughter, being part of the people-smuggling gang and acquiring criminal property.
Robinson was tasked with collecting the trailer on October 23 last year and was shown by Nica where to take it in Orsett the night before.
In the 23 minutes before he called 999, he exchanged a series of calls with Hughes and Nica, who in turn alerted other members of the team, including those waiting in Orsett.
When he spoke to Nica, he allegedly told him: ‘I have a problem here – dead bodies in the trailer.’
When he finally rang 999, Robinson claimed he had found the bodies after he heard ‘a noise in the back’, even though the evidence suggested they had been dead for hours.
The hired helper, originally from Romania, was paid £700 by Nica to drive a van-load of migrants from Orsett to London on October 18 last year.
The 38-year-old had been living and working as a lorry driver in Bradford, Essex and Birmingham on and off for years.
Calota, who was single and left school at 16, often felt homesick and at times found it difficult to scratch out a living.
His precarious lifestyle led to two cautions in 2011 and 2015.
On July 1 2011, he tried to steal some clothes from Marks & Spencer and was cautioned for shoplifting.
On July 2 2015, he was cautioned for false accounting after he tried to pay for food and beer with a false Coinstar receipt in an Asda in Barking.
Calota knew about Nica’s trade in smuggled cigarettes and alcohol, having met at a barbecue in Orsett in 2017, he said.
He claimed he was duped by Nica and he did not hear or see any migrants on the hour-long journey to London to deliver what he thought were cigarettes.
Calota told jurors: ‘I should not have accepted involvement in any smuggling of cigarettes. I should have minded my own business and I’m very sorry and apologetic.’