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 in October last year 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.”
U.K. police release names of 39 truck death victims
Eamonn Harrison, a 24-year-old truck 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. They will be sentenced at a later date.
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.
‘I still wait for him to call’: mother of Vietnamese suspected truck victim
‘Life must go on’
Most of those who died 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.
“I’ve never stopped thinking about my son since the tragedy happened and I still wish for a miracle to bring him home with us,” Nguyen Dinh Gia, father of Nguyen Dinh Luong, one of the victims.
“Now I don’t really care if the smugglers will face a long sentence or not,” Gia told Reuters by phone from Ha Tinh.
“Life must go on and I hope there won’t be any such accidents happening to people seeking a better life,” Gia said.
In neighboring Nghe An, Diep, the brother of victim Bui Thi Nhung said he no longer wanted to talk about the incident.
“It’s like opening the wound over and over again,” he said.
British police released tributes from the relatives of those who had died, including the parents of soccer fan Nguyen Huy Hung, 15, and from the young son of victim Phan Thi Thanh, 41.
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.”
(Reporting by Kate Holden in London; Additional reporting by Khanh Vu in Hanoi; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Angus MacSwan and Lincoln Feast.)