23 alleged smugglers go on trial in Belgium over Essex lorry deaths

Vietnamese ‘ringleader behind trafficking gang that left 39 people to die in truck that travelled to Britain’ appears in Belgian court alongside 22 other alleged people-smugglers

  • 23 men go on trial in Belgium today accused of being part of the gang that allowed 39 Vietnamese migrants to suffocate while being smuggled to the UK 
  • Vo Vang Hong, 45, is accused of being the gang ringleader who ran a safehouse in Anderlecht which many of the dead migrants passed through 
  • Ten are taxi drivers who allegedly helped ferry the migrants to the safe house
  • 12 are Vietnamese or Vietnamese-Belgians accused of being part of the gang, acting as grocery shoppers or safehouse guards 
  • Twenty three men have gone on trial in Belgium today accused of being part of the gang that allowed 39 Vietnamese migrants to suffocate to death inside a container while being smuggled to Britain in 2019.

    The main defendant is 45-year-old Vietnamese migrant Vo Vang Hong who is accused of being the gang ringleader and of running a safehouse in the Anderlecht district of Brussels that many of the dead passed through on the way to the UK.

    Ten of the accused – three Belgians, six Moroccans and an Armenian – are taxi drivers who are alleged to have ferried migrants to the Anderlecht safe house.

    The other 12 are either Vietnamese immigrants or Belgian-Vietnamese who were used as safehouse guards or grocery shoppers. 

    They are accused of involvement in ‘several dozen smuggling activities’ that brought at least 100 people to the UK going back to September 2018.

    23 men went on trial today in Belgium accused of belonging to or working with a people smuggling gang linked to the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in a lorry in Essex in 2019

    23 men went on trial today in Belgium accused of belonging to or working with a people smuggling gang linked to the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in a lorry in Essex in 2019

    One of the suspects - Vo Vang Hong, 45 - is accused of being the gang boss who ran a safe house. Ten are taxi drivers alleged to have driven migrants to the safe house, and the other 12 are accused of being part of 'dozens' of smuggling operations dating to September 2018

    One of the suspects – Vo Vang Hong, 45 – is accused of being the gang boss who ran a safe house. Ten are taxi drivers alleged to have driven migrants to the safe house, and the other 12 are accused of being part of ‘dozens’ of smuggling operations dating to September 2018 

    Another man, also Vietnamese, has been charged over the deaths but is facing a separate legal process because he was a minor at the time. 

    Presenting the case in court, one prosecutor recalled the haunting image of a bloody handprint on the door of the trailer in which the migrants died. 

    The 23 were arrested in May 2020, as Belgian police swooped on the gang seven months after the lorry deaths. 

    Prosecutors say they had been operating out of an apartment run by Hong that was located above a pizzeria on Ninoofsesteenweg, the main highway cutting through the Anderlecht district.

    Police had been tracking the gang for some time before the ill-fated migrants passed through the safehouse, investigators said, but had not amassed enough evidence to raid the property in the wake of the tragedy.

    Prosecutors say the smugglers had connections in France, the Netherlands and Germany, and that it was believed some of the defendants continued their illegal activities after the October 2019 tragedy. 

    They said the ‘very well organised’ gang specialised in clandestinely transporting people into Europe then Britain for a total fee of £20,000 each.

    They said the gang used an Irish trucking company that regularly imported Vietnamese biscuits to get the migrants across the Channel, and that Vietnamese gang members took charge of them once they got to Britain.

    In previous court documents, prosecutors laid out the route the migrants had taken to the UK which ended up with them dead.

    On October 21, two days before the bodies were found, prosecutors say migrants who had been brought to Hong were driven Paris.

    Then – the following day – they were taken to Bierne in northern France where they were ordered inside the refrigerated lorry. 

    Belgium launched an investigation into the deaths after it emerged the container in which the migrants died originated in the port of Zeebrugge (pictured, in court today)

    Belgium launched an investigation into the deaths after it emerged the container in which the migrants died originated in the port of Zeebrugge (pictured, in court today)

    Driver Eamonn Harrison, 23 and from Northern Ireland, then drove the trailer back to Belgium and to the port of Zeebrugge where it was left on the dock to be loaded on to a ferry bound for Purfleet, in Essex.

     During the journey, temperatures inside the trailer soared to 38.5C and oxygen levels dropped near-zero, causing the 39 people inside to suffocate.

    Many sent desperate last texts or voice messages to loved ones as they died, while at least one grabbed hold of a metal pole and tried to batter their way out. 

    A separate trial in the UK established the trailer was then picked up by driver Maurice Robinson, also from Northern Ireland, who towed it to an industrial estate in Grays, Essex, without knowing the people inside had died.

    It was only when he parked up and opened the back of the lorry that he discovered what had happened. 

    Instead of calling 999, he closed the trailer and drove around for another 15 minutes while on the phone with his bosses, before eventually calling police.

    Emergency services rushed to the scene, but could do nothing to save the 39 people, all of whom were pronounced dead. 

    The victims included 31 men and eight women, ten of whom were teenagers and the youngest of whom were 15-year-old twins.

    Hong is facing up to 15 years in jail if found guilty of manslaughter in Belgium.

    The victims included 31 men and eight women, ten of whom were teenagers and the youngest of whom were 15-year-old twins

    The victims included 31 men and eight women, ten of whom were teenagers and the youngest of whom were 15-year-old twins

    The migrants suffocated to death in the container on the back of this lorry in 38.5C temperatures as they crossed the Channel from Belgium to Essex

    The migrants suffocated to death in the container on the back of this lorry in 38.5C temperatures as they crossed the Channel from Belgium to Essex 

    Realising their gruesome fate, at least one migrant had tried to batter their way out of the lorry with a metal pole (damage pictured) while others sent heartbreaking messages to families

    Realising their gruesome fate, at least one migrant had tried to batter their way out of the lorry with a metal pole (damage pictured) while others sent heartbreaking messages to families 

    He admits running the safe house but denies being the ringleader of the gang, and says he had no idea the people staying with him were being smuggled.

    The trial is expected to last two days, but it could be weeks before a verdict. The accused were previously in court in October, when they entered their pleas.

    Seven men – including Harrison and Robinson – have already been jailed in the UK for their part in the operation.

    Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica, who were found guilty of orchestrating the smuggling operation, were sentenced to 20 years and 27 years respectively.

    Harrison was given 18 years and Robinson was given 13 years. Three others – Christopher Kennedy, Valentin Calota and Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga – were given between three years and seven years.

    Another investigation in Vietnam established that most of the migrants had come from a poor central region of the country, and had been lured into making the dangerous journey by local fixers assuring them of a better life overseas.

    The victims had stumped up around £10,000 each for the trip, with their families mostly borrowing the money on the promise to pay it back once their relatives reached the UK, began working and sent cash home to them.

    Four men aged between 26 and 36 were eventually found guilty of brokering illegal migration in Vietnam, and jailed for between two and a half years and seven years.

    Ronan Hughes, 40, (pictured) headed the million-pound people-smuggling ring which used death trap lorries on multiple occasions - charging his human cargo £14,000 a head

    But the journey in October 2019 went horribly wrong when driver Maurice Robinson, 26, (pictured) opened the back of his refrigerated trailer in an industrial park in Grays, Essex, to be met with a gush of steam - and 39 bodies.

    Seven men have been jailed in the UK over the deaths, including Ronan Hughes (left) who was jailed for 20 years and Maurice Robinson (right) who was sentenced to 13 years

    Romanian fixer Gheorghe Nica, 43, who arranged transport from Essex to London for the foreign nationals - was sentenced to 27

    Driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, (pictured) - who dropped off the trailer in Zeebrugge before it was sailed to Britain - was jailed for 18 years

    Fixer Gheorghe Nica, 43 (left), was sentenced to 27 years while driver Eamonn Harrison (right) was jailed for 18 years 

    Four men aged between 26 and 36 were also jailed in Vietnam for luring the migrants to make trips abroad (pictured, the regions where the victims originated from)

    Four men aged between 26 and 36 were also jailed in Vietnam for luring the migrants to make trips abroad (pictured, the regions where the victims originated from)