26 arrests in people smuggling investigation

Police move the lorry container where bodies were discovered, in Grays, Essex, Britain, Oct 23, 2019. [Photo/Agencies]

Police in Belgium and France have arrested 26 new suspects as part of an investigation prompted by the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants who were found in a refrigerated truck container in Britain last year. The arrests were made on Tuesday during raids conducted simultaneously in areas near Brussels and Paris, France’s prosecutor’s office said in a statement. Vehicles, cash and electronic equipment were seized, and 21 migrants were taken to safety.

Officials said the investigation was “prompted” by the Essex truck deaths but covered wider people smuggling across Europe. Thirteen people were arrested in each of the two countries with the Belgian federal prosecutor revealing that 11 of those they had detained are Vietnamese and two are Moroccan. Belgian authorities said the suspects are allegedly part of an organized crime group that smuggles refugees from Asia, particularly from Vietnam, and that likely has “transported up to several dozen people every day for several months”.

A joint investigation between Belgium, Ireland, France, the United Kingdom, Vietnam and criminal justice agencies Eurojust and Europol, has been working to trace the smuggling network that transported the 39 migrants discovered in October. “The criminal organization is suspected of facilitating the transit of mainly Vietnamese irregular migrants through Belgium and France towards the United Kingdom,” a Europol spokesperson said. “The suspects are believed to have hidden their victims before routing them towards their final destination across the English Channel.

“These criminal activities were particularly dangerous due to the life-threatening conditions of transportation.” The people found dead in October-31 men and eight women-were aged between 15 and 44 years old and are believed to have paid human traffickers to smuggle them into the UK. Investigators found the container had been loaded on a freight ferry from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, having previously travelled to Dunkirk and Lille in France.

A report for the coroner said the victims died of a combination of asphyxiation and overheating. Five people have so far been charged by British authorities. The truck driver, Maurice Robinson, 25, pleaded guilty to manslaughter last month at a central London court.

Co-defendant Gheorghe Nica, 43, has however denied the manslaughter charges. A trial on remaining charges is scheduled to begin on Oct 5. Several other people have also been arrested in connection to the deaths, including at least seven in Vietnam.

The suspected smugglers arrested on Tuesday face up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to 150,000 euros (£165,000) per victim.