A Belgian court has convicted 18 members of a trafficking gang for the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants who died inside an airtight shipping container while crossing the English Channel in late 2019.
The court in the city of Bruges on Wednesday sentenced the gang’s Vietnamese leader Vo Van Hong to 15 years in prison and ordered him to pay a 920,000 euro ($1 million) fine. The other 17, of whom 11 were also Vietnamese or of Vietnamese descent, were handed prison terms from 18 months to 10 years.
The court said Vo Van Hong, 45, was “indisputably the leader” of the Belgian cell of a criminal organization that conducted illegal, “life-threatening” transports of people from Vietnam to the UK through the so-called “CO2 route” aboard poorly ventilated trucks or containers. Others tried in the case included Belgian, Moroccan and Armenian suspects.
On Oct. 23, 2019, 39 Vietnamese people were found dead inside the container on the back of a trailer truck in Essex in south-east England. The truck had arrived aboard a ship from Zeebrugge port in Belgium. Investigators said the 31 males and eight females, including ten teenagers, suffocated from lack of oxygen inside the sealed container, where they traveled in pitch darkness for nearly 12 hours.
The case shed light on the perilous and dehumanizing conditions unauthorized migrants face when traveling on the nearly 10,000 km route across Asia into Europe, and the international networks of conmen who exploit their hopes of finding better lives in developed Western countries. The court said the 39 victims were charged nearly 25,000 euros ($28,400) to be smuggled into the UK, Reuters reported.
An international investigation ensued after the discovery of the bodies, and several suspects have been convicted of crimes such as manslaughter and immigration offenses over the past two years.
Four men were convicted by a British court in January last year, with the presiding judge noting that the victims would have died an “excruciatingly painful” death. The victims, he said, desperately attempted to contact the outside world as temperatures inside the container rose to 40 degrees Celsius while it was at sea.
One victim, Pham Thi Tra My, texted her mother shortly before her death: “Mom, I love you and Dad so much! I’m dying because I can’t breathe.”
Advocates welcomed the latest convictions as a step towards justice, but called for measures to address the broader problem of human trafficking.
Michael Brosowski, founder and co-CEO of Blue Dragon, an anti-human trafficking group that has been operating in Vietnam since 2003, told VICE World News he was “pleased to see justice being done.”
“Now we need to go beyond punishment, and look at how to reduce the demand for this crime. We urge European governments to consider how they can create options for safe and legal migration to reduce the need for this trade in humanity.”