UK: Smuggler jailed over October 2019 Vietnamese migrant lorry deaths

Another person has been jailed in the UK for his part in a people smuggling operation that led to the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants inside a lorry in October 2019. A court in the United Kingdom has sentenced a man to three years and ten months in prison for his role in the trafficking of 39 Vietnamese migrants who were found dead in a lorry in October 2019.

28-year-old Stefan Dragos Damian, a Romanian national, had pleaded guilty in November to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. “Damian played his part in this criminal enterprise by using his van for people smuggling without a second thought for the consequences or the wellbeing of those being trafficked,” Russell Tyner of the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service said.

“Our thoughts remain with the families of victims and hope this sentencing brings some small comfort.” The Home Secretary Priti Patel said Damian’s sentencing should serve as a reminder of how seriously the UK government takes people smuggling, adding: “We are determined to do everything we can to prevent further loss of life in similar circumstances, which is why our Nationality and Borders Bill will increase the potential penalty for those who facilitate illegal entry into the country to a life sentence.”

Victim's names on the wall of a memorial shrine at the Hackney Chinese Community Services in east London, on the first anniversary of the Essex container tragedy, October 23, 2020 | Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA WireVictim’s names on the wall of a memorial shrine at the Hackney Chinese Community Services in east London, on the first anniversary of the Essex container tragedy, October 23, 2020 | Photo: Kirsty O’Connor/PA Wire

Wheels of justice

A British judge last year handed down sentences of 27 and 20 years to the ringleaders of the people smuggling operation, while two truck drivers were given 13-year and 18-year sentences. In Belgium, authorities have put 23 people suspected of involvement on trial.

A Vietnamese man, Vo Van Hong, was sentenced in January 2022 by a Belgian court to 15 years in prison after it convicted him of being the local ringleader of the operation. The victims of the tragedy on October 22, 2019, all died of oxygen starvation after being sealed in an air-tight lorry container for nearly 12 hours as they were being transported to what they had hoped would be new lives in Britain. The youngest were two 15-year-old boys.

Investigators said that the migrants had paid more than EUR11,200 each to be smuggled into the UK. During last year’s trial of the ringleaders it was revealed that the migrants had tried to raise the alarm from inside the container but had been unable to get a phone signal. Heartbreaking recordings of their final messages to family members were played in court.

In one message, a man gasping for air told his loved ones: “I can’t breathe. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.”

Border Force staff checking a lorry for migrants with CO2 testing technology at the Port of Tilbury in Essex, November 27, 2020 | Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA WireBorder Force staff checking a lorry for migrants with CO2 testing technology at the Port of Tilbury in Essex, November 27, 2020 | Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Wider people smuggling conspiracy

The Crown Prosecution Service said Damian was “brought to justice” through a multi-agency investigation which involved the National Crime Agency, Essex police, the interior ministry and law enforcement colleagues across Europe.

Italian police detained him last June in Milan on a UK arrest warrant and he was extradited last September. The Essex police investigation established that Damian was part of a wider conspiracy to smuggle people illegally. He had flown into the UK on October 19, 2019.

At around 1 a.m. on October 23, Damian had been waiting in a van to pick up the Vietnamese migrants from the lorry which had arrived at Purfleet Port. A few minutes after it was discovered that the migrants had died, Damian drove away, and at 7 a.m. on the same day he left the UK from Dover, according to a statement from the Essex police. The senior investigating officer, Detective Chief Inspector Louise Metcalfe, said in a statement this week that Damian had been “a key player in an evil people-smuggling conspiracy that made money from misery.

“Along with his co-conspirators he knew that what he was doing was dangerous and wrong, but through sheer greed he did it anyway.”

She said she hoped the sentence would serve as a warning to those who prey on the vulnerabilities of migrants seeking a different life.