Four on trial over human trafficking into Tilbury Docks

Police were called to Tilsbury Docks in August last year Credit: PA

Dozens of illegal immigrants - including 15 children - were smuggled into the UK by members of an international human trafficking gang which treated human beings as "freight", a jury has been told.

Thirty-five people, aged from just 16 months to 72 years, were found in a shipping container at Tilbury Docks in Essex on August 16 last year.

Many were suffering breathing difficulties and ill health after being packed into the cramped container. One of the men on board, 40-year-old Meet Singh Kapoor, died on the crossing.

The trial of four alleged members of the human trafficking ring - Stephen McLaughlin, Timothy Murphy, Martin McGlinchey, and Taha Sharif, all of whom deny conspiracy to facilitate illegal entry into the UK - began today at Basildon Crown Court.

Prosecutor Michael Goodwin told the court that the foursome was part of a syndicate which had also been foiled just 11 days before, when 12 Afghan nationals were found sealed into a lorry's panic lockers at a terminal in Coquelles, France.

This was a professional operation and, like any legitimate business or operation, each person played a vital role in the running of this conspiracy...[which] involved effectively smuggling human beings into this country as freight.

Michael Goodwin, prosecutor
Thirty-five people were found inside the container Credit: PA

Mr Goodwin said Murphy, aged 33, of Elmgrove in Londonderry, drove the lorry carrying the container to Zeebrugge, Belgium, where it was loaded on a ship headed for England.

He was followed by Kurdish national Sharif, 38, who Mr Goodwin alleged acted as "backup" to ensure nothing went wrong.

The other men - 34-year-old McLaughlin, of Limavady, Londonderry, and 47-year-old McGlinchey, of Derryloughan Road, Coalisland, County Tyrone - were in "regular contact" to ensdure the operation went smoothly, he added.

He said the group had all been Afghan Sikhs who were fleeing persecution in their homeland.

Tilbury Docks Credit: PA

They were found in the early hours of the morning when dock workers at the Essex port heard knocking and shouting coming from inside.

Police broke the seal and rear doors and the 35 illegal entrants were found on board in a distressed state.

Michael Goodwin, prosecutor

Some of the immigrants and their families had paid "substantial amounts of money" to be transported, Mr Goodwin added, and they were all now claiming asylum in the UK.

The trial continues.

ITV News reporter Rebecca Barry has the story: