Author: JOSEPH CURTIS FOR MAILONLINE
A Romanian driver who tried to smuggle two illegal immigrants into the country through in a secret ‘sarcophagus’ compartment built into his van has been jailed for 40 months.
Nelu Spinu, 23, was stopped by Border Force agents during a routine check at Coquelles in France in May and two Afghan nationals were found in the vehicle.
The migrants – a father and his 14-year-old daughter – were said to be ‘visibly distressed’ and in discomfort after hiding in the purpose-built compartment.
A judge described the ‘rudimentary’ device as an ‘astonishingly dangerous contraption’ as he jailed Spinu.
The original base in the 2003-reg Fiat van had been cut out and replaced with a wooden box, secured with metal straps.
Once the stowaways got into the box, metal bars were placed over the top of it and the van floor was laid back down.
The modification required the exhaust to be moved and the fumes were directed towards the box, Maidstone Crown Court in Kent heard.
Recorder Mark Weekes said: ‘It was very much a sarcophagus, and the dangers are all too apparent.
‘This was a remarkably dangerous concealment carrying with it the risk of at least serious injury and potentially death for those within it.
‘Both individuals, a father and a daughter, were distressed on being removed.
‘Whether that distress related to their detection or the conditions in which they were found I do not know.
‘But it matters little. As I have said, this was an astonishingly dangerous contraption.’
Recorder Weekes said harsh sentences for offences of people-smuggling were necessary to punish those involved and deter others.
Drawing comparisons to a case held at the same court in 2001 when 58 Chinese illegal entrants suffocated and the Dutch lorry driver was jailed for 14 years for manslaughter, he added: ‘It was less than 20 years ago that this court presided over a case where a large number of illegal immigrants died when concealed in a lorry.
‘Those who engage in this kind of activity must expect to be punished severely…One need only look at a newspaper or online report to see it is a matter of extreme public concern.’
The court heard the two Afghan nationals were found during a routine check by Border Force officers at Coquelles in France at 8pm on May 20.
Spinu had travelled out three days earlier in his van.
Prosecutor Lucy Luttman said he told officials he had travelled from Romania and was heading to Blackpool.
‘On inspection, they noted what appeared to be a new floor with screws in it. He said ‘I leant it to a friend. He made a mess so I replaced the floor and removed the side panels.’.
‘Suspicious of what he said, officers conducted a full search of the van. When they took up the floor they discovered a purpose-built hide.’
Miss Luttman said although it demonstrated a degree of sophistication, its rudimentary construction increased the risks already involved in smuggling the immigrants.
‘This was an organised and planned venture with a custom-built modification which could only be for the purpose of facilitating illegal entry,’ she added.
‘There was obvious distress, not intentional but occurring because of the manner in which they were being transported.’
Miss Luttman added that Spinu, motivated by financial gain, may have been ‘back and forth’ to the UK in the three-day gap but there was no evidence in support.
However, Recorder Weekes said although he ‘raised a metaphorical eyebrow’, he sentenced on the basis it was his first people-smuggling trip.
Spinu, who is of no fixed address and has no convictions in the UK, admitted assisting unlawful immigration.
The judge said the offence was aggravated by the fact the two illegals, said to have been served with ‘relevant detention and removal papers’, were strangers.
‘I also find there was a degree, which I judge to be high, of planning and sophistication, albeit the device itself was rudimentary, and a high danger and stress caused,’ he added.
Kate Smith, defending, said Spinu acted out of ‘stupidity and naivety’.
‘This wasn’t an enterprise he started off on his own by any means. He was looking for a job and rang a man who told him to do this.
‘He said “You will be paid good money, you won’t get into trouble and if the people are found they will be taken, not you. There won’t be any trouble for you. They will let you go”.’
Miss Smith added: ‘He is sorry for what he has done and didn’t expect to be here when he travelled through the Channel Tunnel that day.’