Police smash people-smuggling ring 'linked to Essex lorry deaths'

By Kim Willsher in Paris

French and Belgian police believe they have smashed an international people-smuggling network involved in the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants whose bodies were found in a refrigerated trailer in the UK last October.

Officers have arrested 26 people in coordinated raids in several locations in the two countries after keeping the gang under surveillance for several months.

Detectives say the network continued to operate after the tragedy last autumn and even through France’s strict eight-week coronavirus lockdown using taxis to ferry the migrants to Channel ports.

In Belgium, 13 individuals – 11 Vietnamese and two Moroccan nationals – appeared before a judge on Friday. All were charged with “trafficking human beings in aggravated circumstances, membership of a criminal organisation and forgery” and 11 were remanded in custody. In France, a further 13 suspects were still being questioned by police on Friday.

The bodies of 31 men and eight women from Vietnam – 10 of them teenagers, the youngest aged 15 – were found in a container parked near an industrial estate at Grays in Essex on 23 October last year. The container had been shipped from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. They had all died from asphyxia and hypothermia.

The driver who picked up the trailer, Maurice Robinson, 25, was among five people arrested in connection with the deaths. Robinson, of Craigavon, County Armagh, Ireland admitted conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and at a hearing at the Old Bailey pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter. The other defendants face trial in October.

French investigators say they tracked the smugglers’ route from Bierne in the north of France to Belgium. Each of the victims had paid up to €35,000 (£32,000) in total to make the journey from Vietnam to the UK.

“This criminal organisation is suspected of having organised the transfer of illegal migrants – mostly Vietnamese – through Belgium and France to the United Kingdom,” Europol said in a statement.

The Belgian federal prosecutors added: “The network set up by the smugglers appears to have transported several dozen people every day for several months.”

In France, investigators say they tracked the movements of the dead migrants using GPS signals from mobile phones. Most of those arrested in France are also Vietnamese or French, and are believed to have housed the migrants in the Paris area before transporting them north in taxis whose drivers are also believed to be part of the network.

During the lockdown the smugglers are reported to have hidden small groups of three or four people inside lorry cabs crossing the Channel.

A police source told Le Parisien newspaper the smuggling network stopped for a short while after the deaths were revealed, but restarted “a few months later”. 

The investigation involved police from Belgium, France, Ireland and the UK as well as officers from Europol and Eurojust.

During the nine-hour crossing from Zeebrugge to Purfleet, where it docked at around 12.30am, Pham Thi Tra My sent her mother a text message to say she was suffocating: “My trip to a foreign country has failed,” she wrote, before sending a final message: “I love you so much. I’m sorry.”

If found guilty, the Belgian suspects face up to 15 years in prison and fines of between €1,000-€150,000 per “identified victim”.