BRUSSELS — A court in Belgium found a 45-year-old Vietnamese man guilty of people smuggling, alongside more than a dozen associates, in connection with the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants whose bodies were discovered in a truck in Britain, the court’s spokesman said in a statement on Wednesday.
The verdict comes more than two years after the 39 were found dead in a refrigerated truck near a ferry terminal in Essex, east of London. They had crossed the English Channel from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, which has been used by smuggling gangs as an entry point into Britain for decades.
The tragedy opened a window into the murky world of people smuggling and the trial shed light on international networks exploiting thousands who aspire to a better life in Europe.
The 31 Vietnamese men and eight women who were killed two years ago were traveling along the so-called “CO2 route,” a perilous journey across the English Channel to Britain in poorly ventilated trucks or containers at the end of a 6,000-mile passage from Southeast Asia into Europe.
The 45-year-old man, whose name was not made public, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and a fine of around €900,000, or $1 million, by a court in Bruges, eight miles from the port. The court confiscated assets from him worth more than $2.3 million.
“He is indisputably the leader of the Belgian cell of the criminal organization,” the court said in a statement. “His transports were life-threatening. He also organized the fatal transport of Oct. 22, 2019, in which no fewer than 39 people lost their lives, in downright degrading and essentially terrible conditions.”
Among 22 people who were tried alongside the 45-year-old man, three were Belgian, six Moroccan and one Armenian, and 12 were Vietnamese, said Eric Van Duyse, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor. Four, who had worked as drivers, were acquitted for “not being aware of the nature of the transports,” and one had already been convicted on similar charges in 2019. Seventeen others were found guilty and given sentences ranging from one to 10 years in prison.
“Overall, we are satisfied with the verdict,” Mr. Van Duyse said in an interview. “What’s most important is for the families of the victims to consider that they obtained justice.”
The discovery of the 39 bodies prompted the creation of a joint investigation team between Belgium, Ireland, France, Britain and two European Union agencies, Eurojust and Europol, which led to the arrests of 26 suspects in Belgium and France in May 2020.
Last January, a British court gave four men, including two truck drivers, prison sentences ranging from 13 to 27 years for manslaughter over the deaths, with the presiding judge noting that the people trapped in the truck would have died in an “excruciatingly painful” way. Another three men received prison sentences of three to seven years for conspiracy to facilitate illegal immigration.
The court in Belgium said that the people convicted on Tuesday were a part of a larger network smuggling people from Vietnam to Britain.
Despite the risks, an estimated 18,000 Vietnamese embark on the “CO2 route” every year seeking opportunities in Britain, paying smugglers between $10,000 and $50,000.
According to British authorities, Vietnam is one of the main sources of migrants who have been trafficked into the country, often to work in nail salons or factories, where they face abuse and exploitation. Vietnamese smugglers usually transport their clients from Vietnam through China into France or the Netherlands, where other gangs take over and get migrants across to Britain.
One of the victims, 26-year-old Pham Thi Tra My, who wanted to work as a manicurist in London, sent a text to her mother hours before the bodies were found. “Mom, I love you and Dad so much! I’m dying because I can’t breathe,” she wrote.