Three Irish men and a ringleader of a people smuggling gang have been jailed for the manslaughter of 39 migrants who suffered an "excruciating" death in an airtight trailer.

The victims, Vietnamese men, woman and children, had hoped for a better life when they agreed to pay up to €14,590-a-head for a 'VIP' smuggling service.

Maurice Robinson, 26, from Craigavon, and his boss Ronan Hughes, 41, from Armagh, had admitted plotting to people smuggle and 39 counts of manslaughter.

Hughes's partner-in-crime Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Basildon, Essex, and Eamonn Harrison, 24, of Co Down, who had collected the victims on the continent, were found guilty of the offences.

Robinson, who also admitted money-laundering, was jailed for 13 years and four months in jail, Hughes was sentenced to 20 years, Nica to 27 years and Harrison to 18 years.

On 22 October 2019, the victims were crammed into a lorry container to be shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet in Essex in pitch black and sweltering conditions.

The Central Criminal Court of England and Wales heard how they desperately tried to raise the alarm as they ran out of air before reaching British shores.

The migrants, two aged just 15, were found dead by lorry driver Robinson who collected the trailer from the docks early the next morning.

The 39 Vietnamese men, woman and children suffered an "excruciating" death

Mr Justice Sweeney said: "I have no doubt that, as asserted by the prosecution, the conspiracy was a sophisticated, long running, and profitable one to smuggle mainly Vietnamese migrants across the channel."

The migrants had desperately tried to break out of the trailer and raise the alarm before they suffered an "excruciatingly slow death".

Mr Justice Sweeney told the defendants jailed for manslaughter they would serve two-thirds of the term in custody, instead of the usual half.

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In his sentencing remarks, Mr Justice Sweeney said that the temperature had been rising along with the carbon dioxide levels throughout the trip, hitting 40C while the container was at sea.

"There were desperate attempts to contact the outside world by phone and to break through the roof of the container," he said.

"All were to no avail and before the ship reached Purfleet [the victims] all died in what must have been an excruciatingly painful death."

Justice Sweeney added: "The willingness of the victims to try and enter the country illegally provides no excuse for what happened to them."

Read: The Irish men who became international people smugglers

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CCTV footage released by Essex Police showed the movements of the trailer in which the people died

The court had heard the operation was sophisticated, long-running and profitable, with the smugglers standing to make more than a million pounds in October 2019 alone.

A total of seven smuggling trips were identified between May 2018 and 23 October 2019, although the court heard there were likely to have been more.

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

The fee was between €11,200 and €14,590, for the 'VIP route' in which the driver was aware of the presence of smuggled migrants inside the trailer attached to his lorry.

Some of the trips were thwarted by border officials and residents in Orsett, Essex, had repeatedly reported migrants being dropped off to the police.

Yet the smuggling operation was not stopped until after the tragic journey.

The truck carrying the refrigerated trailer in which the migrants died

Following today's sentencing, Chief Constable of Essex Police, Ben-Julian Harrington, said the investigation was the biggest in the history of Essex Police and would not have been possible without the help of the public.

He said: "On 23 October 2019 we were called to a scene that no officer could ever have prepared for. I know the officers who attended that morning will never forget what they saw in that trailer.

"Every person in that trailer had left behind a family. They had been promised safe passage to our shores and they were lied to. They were left to die, all because of the greed of the men who have been sentenced today. 

"Their families, most of them thousands of miles away, have had their heartbreak played out for the world to see. They've kept their dignity, and they put their trust in us to deliver justice. I promised them that we would, and my teams have done just that."  

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

Phan Thi Thanh, 41, had sold the family home and left her son with his godmother before setting off on the ill-fated journey.

Her "heartbroken" son said: "I heard about the incident from mass media so I called dad in the UK in order to confirm if mum was a victim.

"I was very shocked, very sad and I was crying a lot."

Tran Hai Loc and his wife Nguyen Thi Van, both 35, who were found huddled together in death, left two children aged six and four.

The children's grandfather Tran Dinh Thanh said: "Everyday, when they come home from school they always look at the photos of their parents on the altar.

"The decease of both parents is a big loss to them."

Fifteen-year-old Nguyen Huy Hung's UK-based father Nguyen Huy Tung, learned about his death on social media.

He said: "We were very shocked, trembled, we lost track and awareness of our surroundings.

"My wife had fainted many times whenever our son's name was mentioned."

The maximum sentence for people-smuggling is 14 years in prison, with manslaughter carrying a possible life sentence.

The defendants, who are in custody, were sentenced by Mr Justice Sweeney at the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales.