People-smuggler fled UK 11 minutes after 39 migrants found dead, court told
A people-smuggler who fled the UK after 39 Vietnamese nationals were found dead in the back of a lorry is facing jail.
Dragos Stefan Damian, 28, was extradited from Italy to face a UK court following the investigation into the deaths of the men, women and children.
The victims’ bodies were found in a lorry trailer after it was transported by ferry from Zeebrugge to Purfleet in Essex, early on October 23 2019.
At a sentencing hearing on Monday, prosecutor Jonathan Polnay explained how Romanian national Damian was involved.
He told the court: “This defendant was a party to a sophisticated, long-running and profitable conspiracy to smuggle mainly Vietnamese migrants into the UK in the back of lorries in an intentional breach of border control.
“The defendant’s role was in allowing the use of his van to pick up migrants in the UK and on one occasion travelling to Collingwood Farm himself.”
He had been at the pick-up point at the farm waiting for new arrivals when lorry driver Maurice Robinson discovered the dead migrants after picking up the trailer at Purfleet early on October 23.
Damian left the area bound for the continent within minutes of Robinson informing his boss Ronan Hughes of the deaths, the court heard.
Mr Polnay said: “At 1.17am, Mr Robinson informed Ronan Hughes.
“At 1.28am – 11 minutes later – Mr Damian drove away from Collingwood Farm obviously having been informed of events because at 7am he left the country departing from Dover docks.”
Damian was arrested just outside Milan and sent back to Britain last September.
In November, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration between May 1 2018 to October 24 2019.
As part of the investigation, police identified at least six smuggling trips, with migrants paying up to £13,000 for a “VIP” service.
In October 2019 alone, the smugglers stood to make more than £1 million.
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 for transfer to safe houses until payment was received.
Some of the trips were thwarted by border officials, and residents in Orsett, Essex, had repeatedly reported migrants being dropped off, but the smuggling operation was not stopped until after the tragic journey.
The families of the victims in Vietnam and Britain have previously spoken of their loss and hardship.
In January, four men were jailed for between 27 years and 13 years and four months for manslaughter and plotting to people smuggle.
They were crime bosses Gheorghe Nica, 45, from Basildon, and Hughes, 42, of Armagh, and lorry drivers Maurice Robinson, 27, of Craigavon, and Eamonn Harrison, 25, of Co Down.
Three other members of the gang were also jailed for their role in the operation.
Mr Justice Sweeney adjourned completing the sentencing of Damian until Monday next week.Published: by Radio NewsHub