In October 2019, the bodies of 31 men and 8 women were discovered inside a refrigerated trailer near the UK port town of Purfleet, Essex

Just before 2AM on October 23rd, lorry driver Maurice Robinson called emergency services from an industrial park in Grays, roughly five miles from Purfleet, the port from which he had picked up the trailer.

Paramedics from the East of England Ambulance Service were quickly dispatched, but soon found that all of the 39 people inside could not be resuscitated and were pronounced dead at the scene.

Formal identification of the bodies took place over the following two weeks, during which it was discovered that all were Vietnamese nationals, the oldest of whom was in their 40’s, the youngest being 15. The full list of names of those killed inside the trailer can be viewed here.

The postmortem report concluded that all had died as a result of the airtight and insulated design of the trailer, which led respectively to a lack of oxygen and overheating. This confirmed what had already been suspected as the cause of death following a text sent to family by 26-year-old Pham Thi My in the hours before her death:

I am sorry Mum. My journey abroad has not succeeded. Mum, I love you so much! I’m dying because I canât breathe”

Multiple human trafficking investigations into the incident were opened simultaneously in Essex (where the trailer was picked up), Northern Ireland (the driver’s home country) and Belgium (where the trailer had left before entering the UK).

Over the course of the next 18 months, numerous local and EU-sanctioned arrest warrants were issued, targeting individuals from or known to be residing in the UK, Vietnam, Ireland, Belgium, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, Romania and Hungary.

It was uncovered that those responsible for the 39 deaths in Essex were part of a large-scale global smuggling operation, who would traffic individuals across national borders in exchange for large sums of money or in exchange for forced labour.

The first to be both arrested and convicted in connection to the organised criminal group was Maurice Robinson, the driver of the lorry who had initially reported the deaths to police. He would plead guilty to conspiring to assist illegal immigration and to 39 counts of manslaughter in 2019 and 2020 respectively, and was sentenced to 13 years 4 months in prison.

Also found guilty of manslaughter were the alleged ringleaders: Romanian-born UK residents Gheorghe Nica and Marius Mihai Draghici, as well as Ronan Hughes and Eamonn Harrison, both from Northern Ireland, were all tried at The Old Bailey courthouse in London between 2021-2023. In addition, a Belgian court found Vietnamese national and suspected ringleader Vo Van Hong guilty of human trafficking in 2022. Their sentences are as follows:

Gheorghe Nica – 27 years

Ronan Hughes – 20 years

Eamonn Harrison – 18 years

Marius Mihai Draghici – 12 years 7 months

Vo Van Hong – 15 years

Many others have been tried and convicted in relation to lesser crimes tied to the incident (the Wiki page on the case is pretty extensive on this), while others are still pending legal proceedings, awaiting sentencing, or have not been named publicly.

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