Two human traffickers were convicted on Monday of the murder of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children who were strangled to death in the back of a free-range truck in October last year as they tried to reach Britain.
The discovery of so many dead people – some as young as 15 – shocked Britain and Vietnam and shone a spotlight on the illegal global trade that sends the poor in Asia, Africa and the Middle East on dangerous journeys to the West.
As oxygen levels dropped at the back of the truck, some desperately tried to escape, but in vain. Others used cell phones to say goodbye to devastated relatives on the other side of the world.
“This is an unimaginably tragic case: 39 vulnerable people desperate for a new life are being driven to put their trust in a network of unscrupulous human traffickers,” said Russell Tyner, a prosecutor in the Department of Organized Crime.
“They died of oxygen deprivation and desperately tried to escape from the container. Some could express their last words to their families on their mobile phones when they knew their situation was hopeless.”
Eamonn Harrison, a 24-year-old truck driver from Northern Ireland, and Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Essex, were charged with 39 counts of murder and one count of conspiracy to assist in illegal immigration, following a 10-week trial at England’s Central Criminal Court in London. They will be convicted at a later date.
Two of the smuggling team had monitored two similar trips earlier that month.
“The men found guilty today made their money on misery,” said Ben Julian Harrington, chief of staff for the Essex police.
‘Life must go on’
Most of those who died were from the provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh in north-central Vietnam, where poor job prospects, environmental disasters and the promise of economic rewards abroad are driving up migration.
“I have never stopped thinking about my son since the tragedy and I still want a miracle to get him home with us,” said Nguyen Dinh Gia, father of Nguyen Dinh Luong, one of the victims.
“Now I do not really care if the smugglers will get a long sentence or not,” Gia told Reuters by phone from Ha Tinh.
“Life must go on and I hope there will be no such accidents with people seeking a better life,” Gia said.
In nearby Nghe An, Diep, brother Bui Thi Nhung’s brother 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 relatives of the dead, including the parents of football fan Nguyen Huy Hung, 15, and from the young son of victim Phan Thi Thanh, 41.
His poem “Beloved Mother” included the line: “For those people who still have a mother, please do not make her cry. Please love her and be kind. This is our mother, my friend.”