Human smuggler gets almost four years in prison for tragic conspiracy

A people smuggler who fled the UK after 39 Vietnamese nationals were found dead in the back of a lorry has spent nearly four years in jail.

Dragos Stefan Damian, 28, was extradited from Italy to appear in a British court after investigating the deaths of the men, women and children.

Their bodies were found in a truck trailer after it was transported by ferry from Zeebrugge to Purfleet in Essex early October 23, 2019.

Damian admitted he had been waiting at a pick-up point to transport the migrants to London as the tragedy unfolded.

The Romanian national, who made £1,000 that night, also admitted to using his van on previous occasions, the court heard.

The defendant’s role was to allow the use of his van to pick up migrants in the UK and on one occasion travel to Collingwood Farm himself.

Prosecutor Jonathan Polnay

In a plea, Damian said he felt he couldn’t say no to leader Gheorghe Nica who had him “over a barrel”.

After the bodies were found, he said he had fled “partly in panic and partly in fear”, the Old Bailey was told.

On Monday, Mr Sweeney sentenced Damian to 46 months in prison.

Earlier, prosecutor Jonathan Polnay had told the court that Damian was part of a “sophisticated, long-running and profitable conspiracy” to smuggle mostly Vietnamese migrants into the UK in trucks.

He said: “The defendant’s role was to authorize the use of his van to pick up migrants in the UK and, on one occasion, travel to Collingwood Farm himself.”

He was waiting for new arrivals when truck driver Maurice Robinson discovered the dead migrants after collecting the trailer from Purfleet.

Damian left the area en route to the continent within 11 minutes of Robinson notifying his boss Ronan Hughes of the deaths, the court heard.

Mr Polnay said: “At 1.17 am Mr Robinson informed Ronan Hughes.

“At 1.28am – 11 minutes later – Mr Damian drove away from Collingwood Farm, clearly aware of the events as he left the country at 7am from the docks at Dover.”

Damian was arrested just outside Milan and sent back to Britain last September.

In November, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to assist illegal immigration between May 1, 2018 and October 24, 2019.

As part of the investigation, police identified at least six smuggling trips, in which migrants paid up to £13,000 for a “VIP” service.

In October 2019 alone, the smugglers made more than £1 million.

Migrants would board trucks at a remote location on the continent to be transported to Britain, where they would be picked up by a fleet of smaller vehicles for transfer to safe houses until payment was received.

Some trips were thwarted by border officials, and residents of Orsett, Essex, had repeatedly reported migrants being dropped off, but the smuggling operation was only halted after the tragic journey.

The families of the victims in Vietnam and Britain have previously spoken of their loss and hardship.

In January, four men between the ages of 27 and 13 were jailed for four months for manslaughter and conspiracy to commit human trafficking.

They were crime bosses Nica, 45, from Basildon, and Hughes, 42, from Armagh, and truck drivers Maurice Robinson, 27, from Craigavon, and Eamonn Harrison, 25, from Co Down.

Three other members of the gang were also jailed for their roles in the operation.

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