People-smuggling trial hears from man who took earlier journey to UK

Ben Quinn
<span>Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA</span>
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

A Vietnamese man who travelled to the UK in the same shipping container in which 39 people would suffocate to death a fortnight later has told a court of making the journey, for which his parents paid £13,000.

The money was paid a day after he arrived in the UK, where he was kept in a flat until it was transferred into a Vietnamese bank account, the Old Bailey in London heard.

Prosecutors have alleged that his was one of two successful cross-Channel runs before the deaths of dozens of men, women and children on 23 October last year.

Referred to as Witness X, the man was giving evidence anonymously in the people-smuggling trial of those accused of organising the subsequently fatal cross-border crossing. He gave the court details of the journey that he and more than a dozen other mainly Vietnamese people went through after they were taken by taxis to a field where they were loaded into a container lorry.

After the deaths of the 39 Vietnamese nationals last year, police located the thumbprint of the witness in the container where they were discovered. The man told the court that he had gone for the second of two ways of being smuggled into the UK – one in which the driver of a lorry would not know the container he was transporting had people inside it – and another known as the “VIP” option, in which the driver would know.

Details of Witness X’s journey appeared to mirror that undertaken by many of the victims who died last year after travelling from Paris on the morning of 22 October to an agricultural shed near Bierne in northern France, where a lorry driven by a defendant, Eamonn Harrison, stopped.

Harrison, 23, from Mayobridge, County Down, and Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Basildon, Essex, both deny 39 counts of manslaughter. Harrison, Christopher Kennedy, 24, of County Armagh, and Valentin Calota 37, of Birmingham, deny being part of a wider people-smuggling operation. Nica has admitted conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Four other defendants have already admitted their part in the people-smuggling plot. Among them are Maurice Robinson, 26, and Ronan Hughes, 41, who have both admitted manslaughter.

Jurors on Thursday morning heard that Witness X was dropped off in the trailer at the Zeebrugge, Belgium, by Harrison on 10 October. The container was then transported across the Channel to the Purfleet, Essex, where it was collected by Kennedy.

Witness X told the court he had flown first to Poland in February 2019 on a legitimate visa and took a business course there before travelling to France and communicating with another Vietnamese person who had made it to the UK and posted photographs on Facebook. An intermediary who he communicated with using the Viber phone app instructed him to go to a postcode in Paris where he and 13 other Vietnamese people came together at a flat.

A tall Englishman, who picked up the group, and two “European-looking” men in the field had physically helped them into the container, providing water at one point and warning them against using their phones. He instructed them at one point that he would knock on the side of the trailer, a signal for them to gather in the middle of the container.

However, some of them used their phones to identify when they reached a port area. After about seven or eight hours, they reached the UK, where the container was picked up and delivered to a number of waiting black Mercedes cars, the court heard.

Witness X said that on the way into a city where he was made to wait in the flat of a Vietnamese man referred to as “Phuong”, the driver asked the arrivals: “Do you like this country?”

The witness said he had wanted a better life for his children despite knowing the journey was illegal. Asked what his plan had been after he was able to leave the flat, Witness X said: “I’m going to go to the Home Office to apply for my papers.”

Jurors were told that an examination of his mobile phone placed it in Paris on October 10 and in south-east London the next day.

The trial continues.