A French court has handed down jail sentences of up to 10 years in a people-smuggling trial over the deaths of 39 Vietnamese people who suffocated in a sealed refrigeration container as they were transported across the Channel from France.
The bodies of the people – two of whom were just 15 years old – were discovered inside the sealed unit at the port of Grays, in Essex, in October 2019.
They had travelled in the lorry from northern France to Belgium before crossing the Channel to Britain.
Two ringleaders of the operation – one Romanian and one British – were convicted at a trial in 2021 in Britain and sentenced to 27 and 20 years in prison respectively.
Other suspects, notably the drivers, received 12 to 20 years, while a Belgian court handed a 15-year term to a Vietnamese man for heading the local cell of the network.
Of the 19 defendants in the French trial – who include Vietnamese, French, Chinese, Algerian and Moroccan nationals – 18 were found guilty.
Four of them, all Vietnamese, were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to nine or 10 years in prison.
Four other Vietnamese nationals, two of whom were absent and considered fugitive, were sentenced to between one and 10 years for their role in transporting and housing the migrants.
The others, drivers or owners of apartments working with the gang, were sentenced to suspended jail terms.
One defendant, a driver, was cleared of all charges.
According to phone intercepts, the group referred to the people they were transporting as “goods” or “chickens”.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, harrowing accounts emerged from the victims, who had recorded messages to their families from inside the sealed lorry.
In one message, 26-year-old Pham Thi Tra My wrote to her parents: “Mom, dad, I love you very much. I am dying, I can no longer breathe.”
Another man left a recording, saying: “I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.”
Some of the defendants had claimed that they were pressed into working with the gang, but the court said that their main motivation was money.