Romanian smuggler behind death of 39 Vietnamese migrants jailed in UK

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A Romanian man who was part of a people-smuggling gang responsible for the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in the UK was jailed for nearly 13 years on Tuesday.

Marius Mihai Draghici, 50, received a sentence of 12 years and seven months, after pleading guilty last month to 39 counts of manslaughter and one of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

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The migrants, aged between 15 and 44, suffocated in scorching temperatures in an articulated trailer brought to the UK from Belgium in October 2019.

Their deaths in the sealed truck underlined the lengths many migrants are prepared to go to reach the UK, and the criminal gangs exploiting their desperation.

An international investigation into who was responsible has already seen 10 people jailed.

Sentencing Draghici at the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, in central London, judge Neil Garnham said he was a “small but essential cog in the wheels of this criminal conspiracy.”

“This was suffering of the most serious kind, and was suffered by 39 people -- men, women and children,” he told him.

Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones earlier told Garnham the migrants’ final hours “must have entailed unimaginable suffering and anguish.”

One of the migrants called the emergency number in Vietnam on his mobile phone. Another messaged: “I can’t breath, I can’t breath.”

The 28 men, eight women and three boys, were lured by the prospect of better-paid work in the UK, and paid between £10,000 and £13,000 ($13,000 $16,800) for the “VIP” route to the UK by lorry.

But during the trip from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge to Purfleet-on-Thames in Essex, temperatures became sweltering.

Oxygen levels slumped as the temperature rose to 38.5 Celsius (101 Fahrenheit) inside the unventilated trailer, making the air too toxic to breathe.

Draghici, who was extradited to the UK from Romania in late 2022, was recruited into the lucrative people-smuggling ring by fellow Romanian Gheorghe Nica.

The defendant had fled the country after the lorry driver Maurice Robinson, who picked up the trailer in Essex, rang the emergency services when he discovered the deaths.

Robinson was jailed for 13 years in January 2021. Another driver who towed the trailer to Zeebrugge, Eamonn Harrison, received an 18-year sentence.

Nica was jailed for 27 years while another ringleader, Ronan Hughes, got 20 years.

Six others have been jailed in the UK and Belgium.

Draghici’s lawyer Gillian Jones said her client “carried out an operational role under direction,” did not plan or organize the conspiracy and had not benefited directly.

He fled the country because he was “terrified” and had been “shocked and horrified” by what happened. “He was too afraid to return,” she added.

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