Children as young as two and a person with physical diabilities were among those discovered bolted inside the boxes, screaming for their lives, at ports in Dover and Portsmouth between August and October 2019.
The gang of smugglers were sentenced to a total of 24 years and two months behind bars on Monday (May 10) following at trial at Reading Crown Court.
The structures were purpose-built from wardrobes and hidden among other furniture items in the back of vans driven across Europe and through across the Channel.
Ben Thomas, deputy director for Immigration Enforcement’s Criminal Financial Investigations, who had been investigating the gang for more than two years, said he hoped the sentencings “send a powerful message”.
“Criminal gangs should be in no doubt of our determination to investigate, catch and pursue anyone attempting to bring people here unlawfully and in such atrocious conditions,” he said.
“The operation run by this criminal group put children and vulnerable people’s lives in danger for the sake of making a profit.
“I hope these sentencings send a powerful message that breaking the law and putting individuals’ lives at risk will not go unpunished.”
Those locked inside the converted wardrobes would have had no way of escaping. Up to seven people at a time were hidden inside the structures, the court heard.
One group was discovered at a UK port “shouting for their lives” at the point of being loaded onto a recovery vehicle, having already endured the journey through Belgium, France and across the Channel.
Minister for justice and tackling illegal migration Tom Pursglove MP said: “These life-threatening attempts to smuggle people, including very young children, into the UK in the back of vehicles with room to barely move or breathe, is quite frankly, horrific.
“I would like to praise the officers on the case in their efforts working round the clock to prevent this illegal activity which put people’s lives in extreme danger.”
Paramjeet Singh Baweja, 50, and Viljit Singh Khurana, 45, organised the smuggling on six separate occasions and pleaded guilty to purchasing the vans and furniture.
They communicated with minders and Romanian drivers, paying money to the ‘minders’. Baweja was sentenced to six years and nine months imprisonment, while Khurana received a six-year sentence.
The minders were Harmohan Singh, 41, and Manmohan Singh Wadhwa, 57.
They both admitted to escorting the vans and drivers, as well as keeping other members of the gang updated on their progress. They were sentenced to three years and four months years in jail.
A fifth member of the people smuggling gang, Dumitru Bacelan, 29, a Romanian national, pleaded guilty to recruiting and the organising of drivers.
He also pleaded guilty to fraud by false representation in relation to an EUSS application he submitted to the Home Office.
Bacelan was sentenced to three years and nine months in jail for immigration offences and 12 months for fraud offences to run concurrently.