Thirty-nine Vietnamese migrants were found dead a lorry near London in 2019

London (AFP) - A Romanian man accused of being a ringleader of a people smuggling operation pleaded guilty on Friday to the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants, who were found dead in a lorry in southeast England.

Marius Mihai Draghici, 50, was detained by police in Romania in August 2022 and charged by British prosecutors with 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Draghici pleaded guilty to the charges at London’s Old Bailey court and will be sentenced at a date to be fixed.

The victims – the youngest of whom were two 15-year-old boys – suffocated in the truck’s container as they were being transported to what they had hoped would be new lives in Britain.

The lifeless bodies of the migrants were discovered inside the sealed unit at a port near London in October 2019.

The case cast a shocking new light on the lengths migrants will go to reach Britain – and on the gangs exploiting their desperation.

Victims paid up to £13,000 ($16,500) a head to be smuggled.

In 2021, two other smugglers received prison sentences of 27 years and 20 years over the incident, while two lorry drivers were jailed for 13 years and 18 years respectively.

Four other men have received jail sentences in the UK for conspiring to facilitate unlawful immigration, while another was handed a 10-month term after admitting a limited role in the smuggling ring.

Belgium has convicted 19 people for being part of the smuggling ring connected to the deaths, including ringleader Vo Van Hong, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.