Man admits to role in smuggling operation that led to deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in sealed lorry

Dragos Stefan Damian will be sentenced in January after pleading guilty of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration

Lamiat Sabin
Wednesday 17 November 2021 17:18
<p>Police and forensic officers examine the lorry at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex</p>

Police and forensic officers examine the lorry at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex

A man has admitted playing a part in a people-smuggling operation that ended with 39 Vietnamese men, women and children suffocating to death in a refrigerated lorry trailer in Essex.

Dragos Stefan Damian, 28, was arrested in Italy and was extradited in September to stand trial at the Old Bailey in London following the investigation into the migrants’ deaths.

In October 2019, lorry driver Maurice Robinson found the victims’ bodies in the trailer that he had transported from Zeebrugge, Belgium, to Purfleet in Essex, via ferry.

Earlier this year, other members of the people smuggling gang were jailed at the Old Bailey for their involvement.

On Tuesday, Damian appeared at the Old Bailey by video link from Chelmsford prison and pleaded guilty – with the help of an Italian translator – to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration from May 2018 to October 2019.

The 39 people who died trying to migrate to the UK

Prosecuting lawyer Jonathan Polnay said Damian’s main task in the plan was to pick up migrants, and “allow” others to, from Collingwood Farm in Essex upon the Vietnamese nationals’ arrival in the UK.

Sentencing has been adjourned until 14 January next year before Mr Justice Sweeney.

Earlier this year, another gang member, 38-year-old Valentin Calota, from Birmingham, was jailed for four-and-a-half-years and ordered to pay the Vietnamese victims’ families just over £1,000.

He had been paid £700 plus expenses to drive one vanload of migrants from Essex to London days before the 39 people died.

Calota, who the court heard had benefited by £1,137.29 from the scheme, appeared at the Old Bailey for his confiscation hearing by video link from HMP Huntercombe and was aided by a Romanian interpreter.

Mr Polnay said: “The prosecution had considered submitting to this court the benefit was higher.

“However given we understand Mr Calota is to be deported relatively shortly from this country we consider there to be little if any benefit in an academic exercise in asserting that he had a higher benefit.”

Judge Mark Lucraft QC ordered that the entire sum of £1,137.29 be confiscated and paid as compensation to the victims’ families.

Other gang members are due to face confiscation hearings later this week.

Previously, the court had heard the people smugglers had stood to make more than £1 million in October 2019 alone.

A total of seven smuggling trips were identified between May 2018 and October 2019, with migrants paying up to £13,000.

Migrants would board lorries at a remote location on the European continent to be transported to the UK. They would then be picked up by cars to be taken to safe houses.

In January, four men were jailed – for between 27 years, and 13 years and four months – for manslaughter and planning to people smuggle.

The men are Gheorghe Nica, 44, from Basildon, and Ronan Hughes, 42, of Armagh, and lorry drivers Maurice Robinson, 27, of Craigavon, and Eamonn Harrison, 24, of County Down.

Three other members of the gang, including Calota, were also jailed for their role in the organised criminal operation.

Families of the victims in Vietnam and the UK have spoken of their loss of their loved ones.

The victims were 29 men and eight women – 10 of which were teenagers, with the youngest two 15-year-old boys.

The parents of a 26-year-old Vietnamese woman have told how she texted them saying: “I’m dying because I can’t breathe”.

They revealed that they had paid around £30,000 in the hopes their daughter could travel to the UK from Vietnam.

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