Published: 17:49, 09 August 2018
| Updated: 17:52, 09 August 2018
A driver has been jailed after he tried to smuggle a father and young daughter into the UK by hiding them in a specially constructed box in the floor of his van.
A judge compared the purpose built “hide” to an Egyptian sarcophagus (funeral box) and branded the people smuggling method as “astonishingly dangerous”.
“This was a remarkably dangerous concealment, carrying with it the risk of at least serious injury and potentially death for those in it,” he added.
The Afghan father and his 14-year-old daughter were discovered when Border Force officers stopped Nelu Spinu’s Fiat van at Coquelles in Calais on May 20 as he was about to travel through the Channel Tunnel to Folkestone.
Maidstone Crown Court heard the 23-year-old Romanian produced documents and claimed he was travelling to Blackpool.
“The officers noted there was a new floor with some screws in it,” said prosecutor Lucy Luttman. “He said he lent the van to a friend and he made a mess, so he replaced the floor and removed the side panels.
“The officers were suspicious and conducted a full search. They took up the floor and found a purpose built hide. The floor had been cut out and a wooden box had been placed in it.
“It was secured by metal straps. Metal bars had been fixed in place over the top of it. The floor was screwed back down over the top of it.”
Miss Luttman said it was “rudimentary in construction” but purpose built. The exhaust had been moved, which meant fumes would have been directed towards the box.
“When the two stowaways were removed they were described as being in discomfort and visibly distressed,” she said.
The judge, Recorder Mark Weekes, said there was a danger of suffocation “or something worse happening”.
They were served with papers regarding detention and “removed”.
Miss Luttman said Spinu was known to have left the UK three days earlier on May 17 and may have been “back and forth”, but there was no evidence he had acted in the same way before. He had claimed he stopped in Germany en route.
Kate Smith, defending, said Spinu, who admitted assisting unlawful immigration into an EU state, had parents in Romania who were shocked to hear of his arrest.
He had been working around the EU, including the UK, “trying to make a living”.
“There is an irresistible inference this was done for financial gain,” said Miss Smith. “There was no intent to put them in danger. He is very sorry for what he has done.
He claimed a man had offered to pay him to smuggle the pair and told him he would not get into trouble if stopped.
Jailing Spinu for three years and four months, Recorder Weekes said he “raised a metaphorical eyebrow” about him being in the UK three days earlier, but sentenced him on the basis it was his first offence.
“When the two stowaways were removed they were described as being in discomfort and visibly distressed" - Lucy Luttman
He pointed out it was less than 20 years since the same court dealt with the case of a large number of illegal immigrants dying in a lorry.
“Those who engage in this kind of activity must expect to be punished severely,” he said. “It remains a matter of extreme public concern.
“There was a high degree of planning and sophistication. It seems to be relevant high danger was involved and stress was caused to those in the vehicle.”
Recorder Weekes ordered confiscation and destruction of the van.
Dave Fairclough, assistant director from the Home Office's Immigration Enforcement’s Criminal and Financial Investigation team said: “Spinu put these two people in terrible conditions, with very little air and the re-routed exhaust pipe dangerously close to their hiding place.
"Had the vehicle been involved in an accident, there would have been no means of escape from the secret compartment.
“I hope this conviction sends a clear message to anyone tempted to get involved with this kind of criminality – you will be caught and brought before the courts.
“We work closely with Border Force colleagues to rigorously investigate allegations of immigration related criminality.”
More by this authorKeith Hunt