February 26, 2021

Essex lorry deaths: 26 arrested in France and Belgium

May 27, 2020

Twenty-six people have been arrested in France and Belgium in connection with the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants found in the back of a lorry in Essex last year.

The dead, including two 15-year-olds, were found on an industrial estate in Grays, about 20 miles east of London, in October 2019.

The latest arrests were made after early-morning raids in France and Belgium as a result of a cross-border investigation supported by Eurojust, the EU's agency for criminal justice cooperation, and Europol, the EU crime agency.

The suspects are believed to be members of a major migrant smuggling group that transported mainly Asian refugees, particularly from Vietnam.

They likely transported up to several dozen people every day for several months, Eurojust said in a statement.

In Belgium, 13 people were arrested after 16 house searches were carried out in Brussels, while a further 13 people were arrested in Paris, France.

Three vehicles were also seized, along with cash and electronic equipment, and a total of 21 "irregular migrants" were also found and taken to safety, Europol said.

Officials have been investigating since 23 October, when the bodies were found on a lorry in an industrial estate shortly after it had arrived on a ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium.

Among the victims in the refrigerated container were 10 teenagers.

A joint investigation team was created between Belgium, Ireland, France, the UK and Eurojust and Europol.

Europol said in a statement: "The criminal organisation is suspected of facilitating the transit of mainly Vietnamese irregular migrants through Belgium and France towards the United Kingdom.

"The suspects are believed to have hidden their victims before routing them towards their final destination across the English Channel.

"It is likely that the network has transported up to several dozen people every day for several months."

It said the people smuggling operation was particularly dangerous due to the "life-threatening" way people were transported.

Following an earlier investigation by Essex Police, five suspects were arrested and appeared in court in April.

Lorry driver Maurice Robinson, 25, from Craigavon in Northern Ireland, pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of 39 people.

He had previously admitted conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and acquiring criminal property.

The other defendants are scheduled to face a trial at the Old Bailey lasting up to eight weeks from 5 October.

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Later in April, Ronan Hughes, 40, faced charges of 39 counts of manslaughter in the High Court in Dublin over the migrants' deaths.

He had been wanted by police on suspicion of human trafficking alongside his younger brother Christopher Hughes, 34.

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