France is to try 19 men over a people-smuggling plot that led to the 2019 deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in the back of a truck, a source familiar with the matter said Wednesday.
The trial is the latest of several in Europe over the tragedy.
The migrants — the youngest of whom were two 15-year-old boys — suffocated in the refrigerated container as they were being transported across the Channel to what they had hoped would be new lives in Britain.
Their lifeless bodies were discovered inside the sealed unit at a port near London in October 2019.
French investigating magistrates on Tuesday ordered the trial of 19 suspects aged 21 to 58 over the tragedy, the source said.
A transnational investigation points to the suspects — of Vietnamese, French, Chinese, Algerian and Moroccan origin — being part of a large network smuggling people from Vietnam to Europe, it said.
They stand accused of organizing the transport of migrants and driving taxis or owning flats where they could hide them in the Paris region, it added.
According to wiretapped phone calls, these men referred to their victims as “merchandise” or even “chickens”.
They will all be tried for enabling the illegal entry and stay of foreigners on French territory and banding together with a view to committing crimes, which could carry up to 10 years in jail, the source said.
Four will also be judged for manslaughter for failing to ensure duty of care during the smuggling operation, which could lead to punishment of three years behind bars.
The cross-border probe revealed that migrants were loaded into a truck in northern France, before being driven to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge to cross the Channel.
The tragedy shone a spotlight on the extraordinary dangers migrants are willing to risk to reach Britain, with some paying smugglers up to $40,000 for the perilous journey.
Post-mortem tests found the victims died from lack of oxygen and overheating, and one sent a poignant text message to her family in Vietnam as she lay dying in the truck.
The victims came from poor and remote corners of central Vietnam, a hotspot for people willing to embark on dangerous journeys in the hope of a better future abroad.
Many are smuggled illegally through Russia or China, often left owing huge sums to their traffickers and ending up working on cannabis farms or in nail salons.
There was no immediate date set for the French trial, which follows several convictions in other countries.
A Belgian court last year sentenced a Vietnamese man to 15 years in prison after convicting him of being a ringleader in the trafficking operation.
A British judge in 2021 convicted two men on 39 counts of manslaughter over the truck tragedy, jailing them for 27 and 20 years. He also handed two truck drivers 13-year and 18-year sentences.