The Vietnamese trafficking ringleader was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in Belgium for sending 39 of his countrymen to death in a truck he found in an Essex industrial estate.
Vo Van Hong (45) was convicted for running a criminal organization in Belgium that was involved in the smuggling of 115 people to Britain. This was more than two years after a truck with corpses had been found in October 2019.
The network of traffickers based in Belgium, responsible for two houses in Brussels’ Anderlecht District to house migrants on their way to Britain and at least fifteen of the victims had died there.
These victims, 31 men and 8 women between 15-44 years of age, all Vietnamese, died due to suffocation, hyperthermia, and the confinement of the container. The container arrived by ferry from Zeebrugge.
After a police operation that took place in May 2020, Vo was among 23 Vietnamese and Belgian suspects. Several addresses in Brussels were searched and Vietnamese were arrested for possible ties to the gang.
From the total 23 convicted, 19 (including Vo) were found guilty and four others were exonerated. Vo was followed by 18 other defendants who were sentenced to prison for a total of five years. Most of these sentences were suspended.
In connection to the case, several suspects were already convicted in Britain and Vietnam. 26 others have been arrested and are currently on trial in France.
Vo Van Hung, a Vietnamese trafficking ringleader, aged 45, sent his fellow countrymen to their death by driving a lorry into an Essex industrial estate.
In 38.5C temperatures, the migrants drowned in the cargo box on the back this lorry hauled as they crossed Channel from Belgium to Essex.
The majority of defendants are alleged to be members of the people-smuggling network.
Twelve of the 12 defendants were charged with being either safehouse guards, or grocery shop workers who procured food for migrants.
Ten people were accused, including three Belgians (six Moroccans) and one Armenian. They are accused of transporting passengers to the safehouse.
Prosecutors said the ‘very well-organised’ gang specialised in clandestinely transporting people into Europe then Britain for a fee of £19,800 (24,000 euros) per person.
Together, they were charged with involvement in “Several dozen Smuggling Activities” that brought illegally at least 100 persons to the UK from September 2018 to September 2018.
They operated out of an apartment run by Hong that was located above a pizzeria on Ninoofsesteenweg, the main highway cutting through the Anderlecht district.
Prosecutors claimed that the smugglers were connected in France, Germany and the Netherlands, with some suspects continuing their illegal activities following the September 2019 tragedy.
Vo denied acting as ringleader and claimed he was a ‘victim’ of the smuggling ring but was handed a 15-year sentence, the statutory maximum, and a fine of £735,300 (920,000 euros).
After a police operation that took place in May 2020, Vo was among 23 Vietnamese and Belgian suspects who were brought to trial.
The majority of defendants were members of the people-smuggling network. The defendants were collectively accused of participating in at least 100 smuggling operations that illegally brought people into the UK between September 2018 and now.
A total of 19, including Vo, were convicted. Four others were acquitted. Vo and 18 others were sentenced with terms under 5 years in prison, many of which are suspended
Belgium opened an investigation after discovering that the container from which migrants were killed was in Zeebrugge. (Photo: Court today).
Prosecutors claimed that the gang used a trucking company in Ireland that frequently imported Vietnamese biscuits, to ferry migrants across the Channel. Then the Vietnamese gang members assumed control once the migrants arrived in Britain.
The route that the migrants traveled to get to the UK was laid out by prosecutors in court records. They ended up being killed.
On October 21, two days before the bodies were found, prosecutors say migrants who had been brought to Hong were driven Paris.
Then – the following day – they were taken to Bierne in northern France where they were ordered inside the refrigerated lorry.
Driver Eamonn Harrison, 23 and from Northern Ireland, then drove the trailer back to Belgium and to the port of Zeebrugge where it was left on the dock to be loaded on to a ferry bound for Purfleet, in Essex.
The temperature inside the trailer rose to 38.5C during the trip, while oxygen levels plummeted to almost zero. This caused 39 of the passengers to become suffocated.
Many people sent last messages or text to their loved ones in desperate times. At least one tried to grab a pole to help them out.
A separate trial in the UK established the trailer was then picked up by driver Maurice Robinson, also from Northern Ireland, who was texted by boss Ronan Hughes telling him to ‘open it and give them some air but don’t let them out’.
Robinson replied with a thumbs up emoticon and quickly pulled over in Grays, Essex. There, he opened the containers 12 hours after being sealed.
The trial was interrupted by horrifying video of steam pouring from Robinson’s container. He then sent a message to Hughes saying: ‘They’re f***** dead.’
Robinson sealed the vehicle and then drove the car for seven more minutes, before returning to the industrial estate where he parked again.
Hughes called him after he opened the doors to read again. A short time later, fixer Gheorghe Nica became involved in the calls, as did Christopher Kennedy, another lorry driver involved in the operation.
They texted each other for fifteen minutes as they tried to decide what to do. Robinson finally called the police to request an ambulance.
The emergency services were quick to respond, but they could not save the victims.
The scene was described by police as a horrifying sight that included 39 corpses. Thirty-one men and eight ladies, including ten teenagers and two twins aged 15 years old, were gathered in the trailer.
Thirty-one men and eight girls were among the victims. The ten youngest of these were teenage twins, while the youngest was 15-year old.
Four men aged between 26 and 36 were also jailed in Vietnam for luring the migrants to make trips abroad (pictured, the regions where the victims originated from)
Contemplating their terrible fate, one of the migrants tried to get out of the truck with a pole made from metal (damage shown), while other migrants sent their families heartbreaking messages.
Many had partly undressed to stay cool, and then collapsed on the ground.
Robinson was arrested by police on the spot. The investigation began as the other members of the gang attempted to hide their tracks.
Nica and two other gang members, Marius Draghici and Valentin Calota, fled the UK for Romania where they were later arrested.
Kennedy was arrested in November as he drove a truck on the M40, while Hughes and Harrison are extradited from Ireland the following June.
In October, all were hauled before the Old Bailey in London on charges ranging from manslaughter to criminal conspiracy. They were all sentenced in January 2021.
Ronan Hughes, 40 paid Harrison (23), and Robinson (26) to bring non-EU citizens to the UK.
Hughes headed the million-pound people-smuggling ring which used death trap lorries on multiple occasions – charging his human cargo up to £14,000 a head for a ‘VIP’ service.
Hughes was sent to prison for twenty years while Nica, a fixer who organized transport between London and Essex for foreign nationals was given a sentence of 27.
Robinson was sentenced to a thirteen-year, four-month term while Harrison was sent to jail for 18 years.
Seven men – including Harrison and Robinson – have already been jailed in the UK for their part in the operation.
Ronan Hughes was found guilty of orchestrating smuggling and Gheorghe Nicca was sentenced to twenty years and 27 year respectively.
Harrison received 18 years, while Robinson got 13 years. Three others – Christopher Kennedy, Valentin Calota and Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga – were given between three years and seven years.
A second investigation revealed that many of these migrants were from the poorest part of Vietnam and lured by fixers promising them a better life abroad.
The victims had stumped up around £10,000 each for the trip, with their families mostly borrowing the money on the promise to pay it back once their relatives reached the UK, began working and sent cash home to them.
Four men aged between 26 and 36 were eventually found guilty of brokering illegal migration in Vietnam, and jailed for between two and a half years and seven years.
Seven men have been jailed in the UK over the deaths, including Ronan Hughes (left) who was jailed for 20 years and Maurice Robinson (right) who was sentenced to 13 years
Fixer Gheorghe Nica was sentenced (left) to 27 years, and driver Eamonn Harrigan was sentencing for 18 years.