Vietnamese people smuggler jailed for 15 years over deaths of 39 people

The Vietnamese leader of a people smuggling gang has been sentenced to 15 years in a Belgian jail over the death by suffocation of 39 men, women and children transported across the Channel in a sealed trailer.

Vo Van Hong, 45, was also ordered to pay a €920,000 (£760,000) fine by the court in Bruges, while prison sentences of between 18 months and 10 years were handed to 17 others for their roles in conducting a large-scale smuggling operation between Vietnam and Britain.

Those convicted were told they had cynically exploited their victims – 31 Vietnamese men and eight women, aged between 15 and 44 – who arrived dead in Grays, Essex, in October 2019.

They had all died from suffocation and hyperthermia (overheating) after paying nearly €25,000 each to be transported to the UK.

The victims were treated as mere cargo and described as “chickens” by their smugglers, the court heard. Customs papers said the shipment contained Vietnamese biscuits.

The convictions in Belgium, where the smuggling network had been based, followed that of Eamonn Harrison, 23, a lorry driver from Northern Ireland, and Gheorghe Nica, 43, the Romanian coordinator of the operation, who were found guilty of manslaughter at the Old Bailey in London in December 2020. They were sentenced to 20 and 27 years in prison respectively.

During earlier proceedings in Bruges, the court heard from Ann Lukowiak, a federal prosecutor, of the horrific scenes she saw in the back of the trailer when she travelled to Essex. “What stays with me the most is a bloody handprint on the door of the container, a silent witness to what happened on that journey,” she said. “One couple has died in each other’s arms.”

Vo, who organised a total of 409 crossings to the UK and rented a safe house in Anderlecht, had the job of ensuring that those seeking to get to Britain arrived at the loading points and made their payments. He told those being smuggled to switch off their mobile phones before departure.

In a 234-page verdict, Judge Bert Salembier wrote that Vo was “indisputably the leader of the Belgian cell of the criminal organisation”.

The Bruges court convicted 11 people from Vietnam or of Vietnamese origin for allowing their property to be used as a meeting point, where documents or mobile phone sim cards for the victims were distributed.

Six taxi drivers, who took migrants largely from Brussels to meeting points, were also convicted, including their leader, a Moroccan man who the court heard continued these activities even after the events of October 2019. He was given a seven-year prison sentence.

The dead were found inside the truck container on 23 October 2019 at an industrial estate in Grays. They had crossed the Channel from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on the ferry Clementine before arriving in Purfleet. The victims suffocated in the stifling hot weather after failing to pierce the metal container’s roof with a pole.

Most of the victims were from Nghệ An and Hà Tĩnh provinces in north-central Vietnam, where poor job prospects, environmental disasters and the promise of financial reward were reasons to seek a new life in the west.

Vo and the others were arrested at various points in the year after the discovery of the bodies. Belgian, Vietnamese, French and British police forces were involved in the investigation.

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