Belgium jails smuggling ringleader in UK truck deaths case

A court in Belgium has convicted and jailed a Vietnamese man found to have led a people-smuggling operation. The case followed the deaths of 39 migrants who suffocated in a truck container on their way to the UK in 2019. A Belgian court on Wednesday sentenced a Vietnamese man to 15 years in prison after ruling he was a ringleader in an operation smuggling people into the UK.

The illegal operation came to light when 39 of the migrants died in the back of a truck in October 2019. 

Why is there a trial in Belgium?

The trial in the city of Bruges was focused on the fact that many of the victims had left from the outskirts of Brussels. The smuggling gang was said to have had two houses there. A police operation in May 2020 saw raids on several addresses in the Brussels region.

Most of the defendants were allegedly members of the people-smuggling ring, while others were accomplices who worked as safe house guards, taxi drivers, or grocery shoppers for the migrants. Prosecutors said the gan was “very well organized” and charged as much as EUR24,000 (£27,000)per person to smuggle people into Europe and then Britain. Prosecutors claimed the group conducted “at least 130 transports” into Britain.

Investigators found that at least 15 of the 39 migrants who died in the container had been loaded onto the truck in Belgium. 

How did the migrants die?

It is believed that the truck made a detour through northern France before it was loaded onto a ferry in the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.  The bodies of 31 men and 8 women, who suffocated in extremely hot weather during the crossing, were found when the container was opened in an industrial area east of London. The victims had tried unsuccessfully to pierce the roof of the metal container with a pole.

Who were the accused?

Most of the accused were Vietnamese or Belgians of Vietnamese origin.

Prosecutors said the 45-year-old Vietnamese man who was sentenced to prison had masterminded the criminal organization and they requested the 15-year sentence that was eventually handed down.  The man had denied being involved and claimed to have been a victim of the gang. The other suspects also denied being involved in trafficking, with their lawyers asking for acquittals.

The prosecution said an Irish trucking company that regularly imported Vietnamese biscuits was used to get the migrants across the Channel. It’s thought that Vietnamese gang members normally took charge of the migrants once they arrived in Britain. Several men have already been convicted and jailed in connection with the case in Britain and Vietnam.

A further 26 suspects have been charged and face trial in France, and a truck owner was arrested in Italy.

Who were the victims?

Many of those who died in the truck came from the same region in the center of Vietnam.

Their families often incurred debts of thousands of dollars to be able to smuggle family members into the UK in the hope of a better life.

rc/rs (AFP, dpa, Reuters, AP)