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 as they tried to make their way to Britain.
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 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 devastated relatives on the other side of the world.
“This is an unimaginably tragic case: 39 vulnerable people desperate for a new life were driven to 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. Some were able to express their last words to their families on their mobile phones when they knew their situation was hopeless.”
Eamonn Harrison, a 24-year-old lorry driver 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.
Two of the smuggling team had overseen two similar journeys earlier that month.
“The men who were found guilty today made their money from misery,” said Ben Julian Harrington, the chief constable of Essex Police.
Most of those who died, aged between 44 and 15, 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.
British police released tributes from the relatives of those who had died, including the parents of football fan Nguyen Huy Hung, one of the youngest on the truck at 15, and from the young son of Phan Thi Thanh, a 41-year-old mother.
His poem “Beloved Mommy” included the line: “For the people who still have a mommy, Please don’t make her cry. Please love her, and be kind. It’s our mommy, my friend.”
The guilty will be sentenced at a later date.