‘Naive and gullible’ but not a people-smuggler, migrant deaths accused says

A lorry driver accused of transporting 39 migrants to their deaths has told jurors he was “naive and gullible”.

Eamonn Harrison, 23, allegedly successfully dropped off two loads of people at Zeebrugge in Belgium before the Vietnamese nationals died in his trailer en route to Purfleet in Essex on October 22 last year.

Giving evidence at the Old Bailey, Harrison denied people smuggling, saying he only agreed to load stolen lorry parts for his boss Ronan Hughes because he owed him after drunkenly writing off one of his trucks.

He has claimed that a Romanian he knew as Alex, aka Petrisor Zgarcea, was Hughes’ “man on the continent” and he went for a walk when people were loaded on his trailer without his knowledge on two occasions.

On October 18, a delivery of macaroons and Bakewell tarts, which were transported in the same trailer as people, were rejected due to human contamination.

Bodies found in lorry container
Bodies found in lorry container

Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones told Harrison: “You have dreamt up stolen lorry parts because on this night a load of illegal immigrants were smuggled in your trailer.”

Harrison replied that it was “without my knowledge”.

The prosecutor said: “That load when it got to the UK was rejected because of human contamination.”

He asked what Harrison had talked about in a seven minute and 36 second call with Hughes on October 18.

Harrison said: “I cannot remember exactly. I know he did tell me the load had been rejected and the trailer was coming back to me.”

Mr Emlyn Jones went on: “You can imagine what was on his mind at that time.

“What you have got to talk about is the fact the load he has spent all morning sorting out… was all trodden down and all the biscuits were broken and crushed.

“He does not know the load has been rejected because the load hasn’t got to Sittingbourne.

“I suggest here are two people engaged in people smuggling talking about their people smuggling.”

The defendant denied it, telling jurors: “I was naive and gullible.

“I was to work off the debt with reduction in wage. It would have taken me a year. I did not know I was involved in people smuggling.”

Turning to the fatal trip on October 22, Mr Emlyn Jones asserted: “It was a double load of 39 migrants and you have loaded them in two stages.”

The defendant denied it.

Bodies found in lorry container
Bodies found in lorry container

Jurors were shown video footage of Harrison walking around the pick-up point near Bierne in northern France that morning.

Mr Emlyn Jones suggested that Harrison had concocted a lie, about being told to go for a walk while migrants were being loaded, from viewing the video.

The prosecutor said: “You have built a lie.

“Your excuse for not knowing what’s happening on the 10th and 17th was you were told to take a walk – a master stroke of subterfuge.

“Hughes tells you to take a walk, you can turn a blind eye to what’s going on in your trailer. It’s based on this clip. You fake a defence around that evidence.”

The defendant has told jurors he initially lied about what happened out of “fear” but decided to tell the truth later.

Harrison, of Co Down, Northern Ireland, has denied the manslaughter of 39 migrants and being involved in a wider people-smuggling operation.

Jurors have heard that Hughes, 41, of Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, has admitted his involvement in the tragedy.