Three Northern Irish people smugglers have been jailed for the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated in an "airtight" container in Essex in October 2019.

The Vietnamese men, women, and children had paid up to €14,590 for a VIP smuggling service but were found dead inside the back of a lorry in Essex on October 23, 2019, having suffered "excruciating" deaths. 

Maurice Robinson, 26, from Craigavon, his boss Ronan Hughes, 41, from Armagh, and Eamonn Harrison, 24, from County Down were all sentenced at the Old Bailey in London on Friday, while a fourth man - Gheorghe Nica from Essex - was also jailed. 

Robinson, who admitted to 39 counts of manslaughter, plotting to people smuggle, and money-laundering, was sentenced to 13 years and four months in prison on Friday, while Hughes, who also admitted to plotting to people smuggle and 39 counts of manslaughter, was sentenced to a 20-year term. 

Harrison, meanwhile, collected the victims when they arrived in Europe and was sentenced to 18 years in prison, while Nica, who also transported the victims across the continent, was sentenced to 27 years. 

On October 22, the 39 victims were crammed into a lorry container in pitch black and sweltering conditions in the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before the container was shipped to Purfleet in Essex. 

All 39 migrants were found dead by Robinson when he collected the container on October 23. 

The Old Bailey heard on Friday that the migrants ran out of air before reaching British shores and desperately tried to raise the alarm. 

Mr Justice Sweeney, who presided over the trial, told the defendants that they would serve two-thirds of the term in custody, as opposed to the usual half. 

"I have no doubt that, as asserted by the prosecution, the conspiracy was a sophisticated, long-running, and profitable one to smuggle mainly Vietnamese migrants across the channel," Mr Justice Sweeney said on Friday. 

The four men collaborated on three occasions in 2019 to assist illegal immigration into the United Kingdom, according to Essex Police, and a fourth Northern Irish man - 24-year-old Christopher Kennedy from County Armagh - was also sentenced to seven years in prison for conspiracy to assist illegal immigration on October 11 and October 18. 

A total of seven smuggling trips were identified between May 2018 and October 2019, although the court heard that it was likely that there were more. 

Ben-Julian Harrington, the Chief Constable of the Essex Police, said that the probe into the smuggling operation was the biggest investigation in the history of the Essex Police. 

"On 23 October 2019, we were called to a scene that no officer could ever have prepared for. I know the officers who attended that morning will never forget what they saw in that trailer," Harrington said in a statement.

"Every person in that trailer had left behind a family. They had been promised safe passage to our shores and they were lied to. They were left to die, all because of the greed of the men who have been sentenced today."