Essex lorry deaths: Voice messages recorded by trapped immigrants played to court

Desperate voice messages recorded by illegal immigrants slowly suffocating in a lorry trailer have been played to a court. They were found on the phones of the 39 Vietnamese men, women and teenagers whose bodies were discovered in Essex in October 2019.

Image: A photo of one of the migrants who died in the lorry in Essex

A stunned court at the Old Bailey heard victims gasping for breath, coughing and crying on three recordings intended for their families, but never sent because there was no network coverage inside the locked trailer on board a North Sea ferry. In Vietnamese one victim tells his wife and children: “I’m so sorry, I can’t take care of you.

I can’t breathe. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.”

Another victim says his name and his home province and then: “I can’t breathe. I’m sorry, I have to go.”

There are other voices in the background, one saying: “Come on everyone, open up, open up.” In a video recording in the pitch black of the locked trailer another voice says: “It’s not my fault.”

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Essex lorry deaths: Voice messages recorded by trapped immigrants played to courtImage: Ronan Hughes has pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter

The recordings were played at the start of a three-day hearing in which eight men will be sentenced for their roles in the smuggling gang. Prosecutor Jonathan Polnay said they ran “a sophisticated, long-running and profitable” people smuggling operation.

There were at least six similar operations before the tragedy, he said. He said: “There is an irresistible inference that there were more events than those that were fortuitously detected.” The prosecutor also read out victim impact statements from relatives of those who died.

Many of them lost the family breadwinner, others were left with big debts after borrowing money to finance the trip.

Essex lorry deaths: Voice messages recorded by trapped immigrants played to courtImage: A message sent from Ronan Hughes to Maurice Robinson said: ‘Give them air quickly don’t let them out’

Nguyen Van Hiep was 24 when he flew to Russia as a tourist, then worked in Germany before trying to get into the UK. He paid GBP4,000 on five attempts to hide in the canvas hood of a lorry, before asking his father to borrow GBP10,000 for another bid to cross the North Sea, said the prosecutor. His mother Pham Thi Luu said in a statement that the family still owed GBP8,200 and added: “My son’s death makes the family in great pain.

I have many diseases and no job.” Ngoc Nam, 28, paid GBP3,000 to fly to Romania to work as a bricklayer, then spent another EUR7,000 (GBP6,300) travelling to a new job in Germany. He told his wife the fee for his lorry journey to the UK would have to be paid on his safe arrival, but he didn’t say how much.

His family said in a statement: “Nam’s death in the UK causes mental breakdown to our family. The family still owes the amount we borrowed to pay for his trips to Romania and Germany.” Nguyen Dat Anh lost his 41-year-old mother Phan Thi Thanh in the tragedy after she sold the family home and left him in Vietnam with his godmother.

He said his mother left Vietnam in July or August and phoned him two days before the fateful journey to tell him she was heading to England. He said when he heard the news: “My mum didn’t tell me anything about her plan to come to the UK. I was very shocked, very sad and I was crying a lot.”

Essex lorry deaths: Voice messages recorded by trapped immigrants played to courtImage: Gheorghe Nica pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter of the migrants

He now lives with his father in the UK, but misses his mother greatly and added: “I feel heartbroken with my mum not around, but I have my dad beside me now.

I miss mum so much, I miss the foods she cooked and her care.” Four members of the gang face life imprisonment after admitting or being convicted of manslaughter of the men, women and teenagers who died. Irish haulier Ronan Hughes and lorry driver Maurice Robinson, who collected the trailer at Purfleet dock, had pleaded guilty to manslaughter and people smuggling.

Lorry driver Eamonn Harrison and Romanian Gheorge Nica were convicted of manslaughter after a 10-week trial late last year. Mr Polnay said Hughes was a ringleader, providing lorries and drivers and booking ferry crossings for the smuggling operation. He said Nica was an organiser who fixed onward transport for migrants after they were collected from the ferry port.

Hughes’s barrister, Tim Moloney QC, said Hughes usually smuggled around 25 migrants in one operation and had not known there were 39 in the doomed trailer until it was too late to stop it. As soon as he was told, he messaged driver Maurice Robinson, who was collecting the trailer, to open the doors and “give them air quickly”. Mr Moloney said Hughes was recruited to the people smuggling operation 18 months earlier by Nica, who knew he had been involved in other smuggling.

Hughes was paid GBP3,000 per migrant and used that money to pay his drivers to pick up and deliver the migrants. Mr Moloney said Hughes had admitted his guilt early on and was genuinely remorseful about the migrants’ death. He had never intended to cause anyone any harm.

The judge, Mr Justice Sweeney, is to hear defence pleas from other defendants before deciding on sentences.

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