A gang of people smugglers linked to the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants have been jailed.
Ringleaders Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica, who were convicted of manslaughter, were jailed at the Old Bailey for 20 years and 27 years respectively.
Maurice Robinson received 13 years and four months imprisonment while Eamonn Harrison was handed 18 years.
The victims, men, woman and children, had hoped for a better life in Britain when they agreed to pay up to £13,000 a head for a “VIP” smuggling service.
On October 22 2019, they were crammed into an airtight lorry container to be shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet in Essex in pitch black and sweltering conditions.
In his sentencing remarks, Mr Justice Sweeney said that the temperature had been rising along with the carbon dioxide levels throughout the trip, hitting 40C while the container was at sea.
“There were desperate attempts to contact the outside world by phone and to break through the roof of the container,” he said.
“All were to no avail and before the ship reached Purfleet (the victims) all died in what must have been an excruciatingly painful death.”
Justice Sweeney added: “The willingness of the victims to try and enter the country illegally provides no excuse for what happened to them.”
Other members of the gang were also jailed for their role in the organised criminal operation.
Lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, of County Armagh, was jailed for seven years; Valentin Calota, 38, from Birmingham, was handed four and a half years and Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28, from Essex, was sentenced to three years.
The Old Bailey heard how the victims desperately tried to raise the alarm as they ran out of air before reaching British shores.
The migrants, two aged just 15, were found dead by lorry driver Robinson who collected the trailer from the docks early the next morning.
The operation was sophisticated, long-running and profitable, with the smugglers standing to make more than a million pounds in October 2019 alone.
A total of seven smuggling trips were identified between May 2018 and October 23 2019, although the court heard there were likely to have been more.
Migrants would board lorries at a remote location on the continent to be transported to Britain where they would be picked up by a fleet of smaller vehicles organised by Nica for transfer to a safe house until payment was received.
The fee was between £10,000 and £13,000, for the “VIP route” in which the driver was aware of the presence of smuggled migrants inside the trailer attached to his lorry.
Some of the trips were thwarted by border officials and residents in Orsett, Essex, had repeatedly reported migrants being dropped off to the police.
Yet the smuggling operation was not stopped until after the tragic journey.
The families of the victims in Vietnam and Britain have spoken of their loss and hardship.
Phan Thi Thanh, 41, had sold the family home and left her son with his godmother before setting off on the ill-fated journey.
Tra My's photo, posted with permission from her family's contact pic.twitter.com/n3MvlvcFQn
— Hoa Nghiem (@HoaNghiem3) October 25, 2019
Tran Hai Loc and his wife Nguyen Thi Van, both 35, who were found huddled together in death, left two children aged six and four.
The children’s grandfather Tran Dinh Thanh said: “Everyday, when they come home from school they always look at the photos of their parents on the altar.
“The decease of both parents is a big loss to them.”
Fifteen-year-old Nguyen Huy Hung’s Uk-based father Nguyen Huy Tung, learned about his death on social media.
He said: “We were very shocked, trembled, we lost track and awareness of our surroundings.
“My wife had fainted many times whenever our son’s name was mentioned.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.