‘They told us to keep quiet’ – How horror of trafficking plot that killed 39 men, women and children unfolded

By Clare McNeilly

For a while, Mo Robinson must have thought he had got away with it.

The “naive Ulsterman abroad” routine seemed to be working. Then there were the tears which garnered sympathetic looks from the Essex Police detectives in the cramped interview room two years ago.

The 26-year-old even had an apparently plausible explanation for why, having witnessed unimaginable horror, he then drove off, returning to the same spot in a largely deserted Essex industrial park 23 minutes later.

He’d just panicked, he told them, after his “head just completely went” following that glimpse into hell: an understandable reaction for someone in a state of shock, who had just realised they had been driving a morgue with a pile of lifeless bodies inside.

But Robinson had used a Samsung phone to dial 999 that October morning, so why did he have an old Nokia battery in his pocket?

Maurice ‘Mo’ Robinson dominates the early part of Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers, a new BBC documentary which details the downfall of a ruthless people smuggling gang – operating out of a seemingly innocuous Northern Ireland haulage business – which dealt in the illegal movement of migrants on an industrial scale.

It ended in unthinkable tragedy, with 39 Vietnamese migrants – 29 men, eight women and two 15-year-old boys – suffocating to death in the container of an articulated lorry.

The hour-long film, directed by Niamh Kennedy and spanning Northern Ireland, Britain, Europe and Southeast Asia, shows how detectives brought the perpetrators of one of the largest manslaughter cases in UK history to justice.

It also reminds us, sensitively and respectfully, that 39 grieving families in Vietnam are still paying the price for the empty promise of a better life for their loved ones.

At least they had the small comfort of seeing the guilty men brought to justice after an Old Bailey trial that lasted 11 weeks.

Apart from Robinson, Ronan Hughes (41), from Tyholland, Co Monaghan, who ran the haulage company, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, Eamonn Harrison (24), from Mayobridge, Co Down, got 18 years, while Romanian native Gheorghe Nica (43), said to be the main instigator, got 27 years.

Their trial exposed, for the first time, a highly lucrative operation that had been smuggling migrants, mostly Vietnamese, into the UK for years.

Each ‘customer’ of the ironically titled ‘VIP’ trips paid the smugglers between £10,000 (€11,750) and £13,000 (€15,283)to be brought across the English Channel from northern France or Belgium.

And it had all been working well for the criminals until the early hours of October 23, 2019, when Robinson – who was jailed for 13 years – called the emergency services from near Purfleet docks on the Thames about the unthinkable scene he had just witnessed.

To their credit, the documentary-makers make no attempt to over-dramatise what happened. With such shocking material to work on, there’s no need.

And they keep it mostly chronological, so naturally it begins at 1.13am that fateful morning, with CCTV footage showing Robinson opening the trailer, having parked it on Eastern Avenue, Thurrock.

The distressed driver later tells an emergency dispatcher: “There’s, er, loads of them; there’s immigrants in the back but they’re… they’re all lying on the ground…”

Robinson was arrested after police arrived at the grim scene and, for a while, detectives weren’t sure if they were dealing with an innocent witness or a suspect.

However, it all starts to unravel when Robinson, having initially denied owning a second phone, then changes his story, claiming that he did have an old Nokia which he uses “believe it or not” when the Samsung “loses signal” in Denmark.

But where is that Nokia now? He “threw it away whenever this happened. I panicked. I just freaked out…because it just doesn’t look good”.

A detective replies: “You thought we’d think you were a drug dealer?” to which Robinson says, with a wry smile: “Yeah.”

At that point, the mood in the interview room changes, with the detective saying: “You’re not a stupid chap, you’re not naïve. You know we’re going to be looking for that phone…we’re going to find it.”

And they did find it – smashed to pieces and hidden in a drain near where Robinson stopped in his red Scania lorry.

But despite being badly damaged, the SIM card – which Robinson initially denied existed – was still repairable. It would yield information that would lead detectives to both Hughes and Nica.

It would also nail the Craigavon native’s initial lies about having no idea that there were people in the container that had arrived from Zebrugge in Belgium.

Later, it would emerge that he had received a Snapchat message from Hughes, saying: “Give them air quickly, don’t let them out.”

Too little, too late. By that stage, the temperature inside the trailer had reached 38.5C and the air was too toxic to sustain human life.

The cloud of steam that emerged from the trailer told its own horrific story of how a journey of 39 people, aged between 15 and 44, that had begun in Vietnam and taken in China, Russia, Ukraine and Europe had met the most tragic of endings.

The victims, realising there wasn’t enough oxygen for survival in that sweltering metal box, made desperate attempts to escape through the roof of the container, and had even attempted to alert emergency services in Vietnam. Realising all was lost, they recorded farewell messages for their relatives before suffering, in the words of the judge, “excruciatingly slow deaths” through asphyxia and hyperthermia.

The deconstruction of Robinson, who had been paid £25,000 to drive via a Dublin-Holyhead sea crossing and bring the ill-fated migrants to a predetermined drop-off point, is one of the most compelling aspects of the documentary.

It provides a chilling insight into organised crime from around the world.

The days of Hughes, Robinson and their co-conspirators being involved in people-smuggling are over, yet it’s clear that the operation to bring them down, while impressive from a policing point of view, barely scratches the surface.

Hughes, who fled south of the Irish border in an attempt to evade arrest, was already well known to the PSNI.

Indeed, in the documentary, DCI Ricky Thornton told of how he had been investigating Hughes for alleged importation of cocaine and heroin into Northern Ireland, and admitted that he “became obsessed with catching Hughes”.

He “immediately recognised that lorry” Robinson had been driving, which would, the morning after the bodies were discovered, be used as a huge, one-off white hearse to transport the victims to a warehouse for identification.

There’s even a moment of black humour when DCI Thornton acquired Hughes’ exact Co Armagh address near the border with Monaghan and obtained a search warrant, only to end up “standing there, in the middle of the night, staring at a post box attached to a tree”. Hughes would ultimately be extradited to the UK.

The investigation catches a major break when detectives, examining another trailer owned by Hughes, find a fingerprint belonging to a Vietnamese migrant who had been brought into the UK the week before his doomed compatriots.

‘Witness X’ recalled that, before the trailer was loaded onto a ferry, the driver had opened the doors and told them to “keep quiet all the time”, stand in the middle of the trailer and hold on to each other.

When Witness X finally arrived in the UK, he and the other migrants were met by a fleet of black cars at farm buildings in Orsett, Essex.

Witness X would provide the damning evidence required to finally nail the gang, including that they had crammed over twice the usual number of people into the trailer in order to maximise their profits.

Most of the dead had been in Paris the day before. They were then transported by car to Bierne in Northern France, where they clambered into the container.

From Bierne, the lorry is seen on CCTV making its way towards Zebrugge, where it was left to be loaded onto the M/F Clementine ferry.

That vessel left Belgium in the middle of the afternoon, and that was when the temperature inside began to rise to life-threatening and ultimately lethal levels.

Many of the first police responders have never handled one suspicious death before, let alone dozens in one place.

When paramedics arrived on the scene – still hoping to save at least some lives – they found the victims had stripped to their underwear, which made later identification particularly difficult.

Refreshingly the documentary spends considerable time on the victims, with accounts from their loved ones touchingly humanising them in a way few others have.

With the documentary makers having travelled to Vietnam, it focuses on three people in particular – Nguyen Thi Hong, mother-of-three and widow of Bui Phan Thang; Nguyen Thi Phong, mother of Pham Thi Tra My; Nguyen Dinh Gia, father of Nguyen Dinh Luong.

Each spoke of the dreams they shared with their loved-ones for a better life 6,000 miles away, working in nail bars, pubs, restaurants and cannabis factories.

To facilitate this, Nguyen Dihn Luong’s family borrowed money from the banks and from other family relatives, who sold their livestock and, in effect, their livelihoods.

Nguyen Thi Hong, meanwhile, admitted that her family still owes £18,700 (€21,981) – a small fortune for most people in the western world, let alone poor farmers from Southeast Asia – that was borrowed to finance Pham Thi Tra My’s ‘VIP’ trip.

“We can’t make plans, we have no dreams,” she said before breaking down.

Speaking about the father of her three young children, Nguyen Thi Hong admitted: “There are times when I feel like giving up. But then I look at the little ones. I have to keep going.”

Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers will be shown on BBC2 on October 13 at 9pm.

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