PARIS—A trial opened in Paris on October 17 of 19 people suspected of playing critical roles in a smuggling operation that went awry and sent 39 Vietnamese migrants to their deaths four years ago when they were locked inside a stifling hot truck trailer.

Courts in Britain, where the truck was found on Oct. 23, 2019, and in Belgium, where the truck boarded an English Channel ferry, have already tried and convicted 23 people.

Most of those facing justice in Paris are French helpers in a highly structured network who face charges including aiding the illegal entry into France of the migrants and criminal associations. Four of the 19, all Vietnamese, are also charged with manslaughter. The defendants risk 10 years in prison.

Among the 19 are taxi drivers, apartment landlords in the Paris suburbs who housed the migrants and organizers who considered the travelers “like chickens that you stack up,” according to the investigating magistrates’ file.


“The arguments advanced by the Vietnamese leaders of the network invoking a form of inter-community aid must be swept aside … the only goal being the search for maximum profits,” the magistrates wrote. As for the others, “the landlords and taxi drivers were French nationals without whom the network could not function.”

International smuggling rings have thrived as migrants and their families empty their pockets to try to reach Britain.

Two London trials, in 2021 and this year, revealed that victims paid about 13,000 pounds ($16,770) for so-called VIP service. Small boats packed with migrants have increasingly replaced trucks, trains and ferries to cross the English Channel from northern France to Britain, with smuggling rings adapting to crackdowns at ports and the Eurostar train.

The French file, made up of numerous investigations, underscores that smugglers “take the risk of sending (migrants) to a particularly cruel death.”

Terms ranging from 12 to 27 years were handed down to five people in British courts with the ringleader Gheorghe Nica, 46, when on trial, getting the stiffest term. Another 18 people were convicted in Belgium, including a Vietnamese ringleader there sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The Paris trial is to continue through Nov. 10, with the verdict expected to be delivered at a later date. (AP)