Belgium, France: 26 arrests over ring linked with UK deaths

FILE - In this Wednesday Oct. 23, 2019 file photo, forensic police officers attend the scene after a truck was found to contain a large number of dead bodies, in Grays, South England. Police have arrested 26 people suspected of human trafficking during a large-scale operation in Belgium and France in relation to the death of the Vietnamese migrants whose bodies were found in a refrigerated truck in Britain last year. Judicial authorities said that a series of early Wednesday May 27, 2020 raids took place simultaneously in Belgium and France on Tuesday as part of two legal investigations (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, file)
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Judicial authorities in Belgium and France on Wednesday announced the arrests of 26 people suspected of taking part in a human trafficking network involved in the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants found in a refrigerated truck’s container in Britain last year.

They said a series of early morning raids took place simultaneously in Belgium and France on Tuesday as part of legal investigations targeting the large criminal network.

“That organization is notably suspected, in a case handled mainly by Britain, of having made possible a transport in a refrigerated truck, discovered on the night of 22 to 23 October 2019 by the British police in an industrial area in Grays,” the federal public prosecutor’s office said in Brussels.

One inquiry was launched in France following the investigation into the deaths of the migrants.

Police investigating the case found the 31 male and eight female victims were all from Vietnam and ranged in age from 15 to 44, including three minors.

Police said the migrants died from a combination of a lack of oxygen and overheating in an enclosed space. The victims came from impoverished villages in Vietnam and are believed to have paid smugglers to take them on the risky journey to better lives abroad.

Last month, the truck driver pleaded guilty to manslaughter at a London court.

In Belgium, the federal public prosecutor’s office said the investigation quickly established the route taken by the victims before they got into the truck and said some of them had stayed in Belgium before their departure.

Tuesday’s large police operation was organized with a trans-border investigation team coordinated by the European Union crime agency Eurojust that included Belgium, France, the U.K and Ireland.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said the 13 people arrested in France are suspected of taking part in a criminal organization that had been housing and transporting several dozen migrants from Southeast Asia every day for several months.

Sixteen searches took place Tuesday in the Brussels area, including in safe houses, leading to the arrest of 11 Vietnamese citizens and two Moroccans. Five of them have been charged with migrant smuggling with aggravating circumstances, belonging to a criminal organization and forgery.

Europol, the EU agency for law enforcement cooperation which provided support to the operation, said that 21 migrants were found during the raids.

“These criminal activities were particularly dangerous due to the life-threatening conditions of transportation,” Europol said. “The urgent operational actions were crucial to safeguard particularly vulnerable victims and to arrest suspects at a high risk of fleeing.”

The suspected smugglers face up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to 150,000 euros ($162,000) per identified victim.