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Court in Bruges convicts human traffickers for role in migrant deaths

Illustration picture shows a pictograph, at a control action on the field, after the launch of a campaign against human trafficking, Monday 18 July 2016 in Zeebrugge. (BELGA PHOTO KURT DESPLENTER)
06:39 20/01/2022

A Vietnamese man considered to be the leader of a gang of human traffickers was sentenced to 15 years in prison by the criminal court of Bruges on Wednesday for his part in the death of 39 migrants in a truck in the UK in 2019.

45-year-old Vo Van Hong was accused of being the leader of the organisation that operated from Brussels.

At least 15 of the 39 dead had passed through the Belgian-based trafficking network, which operated two safe houses in the Anderlecht district of Brussels for migrants heading to Britain. They died of asphyxiation and hyperthermia due to heat and lack of oxygen in the confined space of the container in one of the most shocking immigration tragedies of recent years.

Following an investigation into the deaths of the migrants, 23 people, mainly Vietnamese or Belgians of Vietnamese origin, were arrested in May 2020. They were put on trial before the criminal court of Bruges in December 2021.

In addition to Vo Van Hong, six Brussels taxi drivers were convicted for their role in the organisation. They were accused of knowingly transporting migrants to and from the safehouses, an accusation which they denied, stating that they did not know the nature of the journeys. The court rejected this. The six taxi drivers were sentenced to between two and seven years in prison. Four others which had been accused were acquitted.

The verdict comes more than two years after the 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead in a refrigerated truck near a ferry terminal in Essex, east of London. They had crossed the English Channel from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, which has been used by smuggling gangs as an entry point into Britain for decades.

The 31 Vietnamese men and eight women, aged between 15 and 44, were traveling along the so-called “CO2 route”, a dangerous journey across the English Channel to Britain in poorly ventilated lorries or containers after travelling from South-East Asia into Europe. Vietnamese smugglers usually transport their clients from Vietnam through China into France or the Netherlands, where other gangs take over to transport the migrants across the channel to Britain.

The discovery of the 39 bodies prompted the creation of a joint investigation between police forces in Belgium, Ireland, France, and Britain as well as Eurojust and Europol.

Written by Nick Amies