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Afghan migrant 'struggled for air'

Published 17/06/2015

Martin McGlinchey, Stephen McLaughlin and two other men deny being part of a people-smuggling operation
Martin McGlinchey, Stephen McLaughlin and two other men deny being part of a people-smuggling operation

An Afghan asylum seeker has recalled struggling to breathe as he and other immigrants were being smuggled into Britain in a container.

Javed Esmati told the jury in a people-smuggling trial that he started his journey to Britain from Kabul in May 2014. It ended at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on August 16 when 35 Afghan Sikhs, including 15 children, were found inside the container.

Among them was Meet Singh Kapoor, 40, who had died in the overnight crossing from Zeebrugge, Belgium.

Four men deny organising the operation at Basildon Crown Court.

Mr Esmati told the jury that "most of the children were crying" as they made the crossing inside the container.

The witness said he had gone to the back of the container because there were some holes which allowed air to come in. He was sitting on some water bottles.

Mr Esmati was speaking from behind a screen and through an interpreter at the trial of the four men.

He told the jury: "At the beginning it was OK but there were many people inside the container. There was some air coming but we started to feel a lack of oxygen.

"At the beginning it was OK but I felt I was not having enough oxygen and not being able to breathe properly.

"All of us feel the stress and so we said to each other, 'let's call for help'."

They did not have anything to eat or drink with them. Mr Esmati told the court: "I had a small bottle (of water) with me, but it was hot and we were sweating. It was finished. Then I was trying to drink from the bottles or containers at the back of the lorry. "

Mr Esmati, who has claimed asylum since arriving in Britain, said he had paid 50,000 US dollars (£32,000) to an agent for four people to travel from Afghanistan. His father's shop was sold and savings were used in order to fund this.

The agent had suggested they should flee to Europe or Britain.

Mr Esmati said he paid up, believing "we would be taken to a safe country and we would be safe".

He went to Iran and then Turkey, where the agents forced him to leave his family behind after deciding the young single men should go first.

He remembered being "scared" because he had to get a boat from Turkey and "I did not know how to swim but, I had to travel".

He ended up in Greece, then Italy, travelled in lorries and ferries and arrived in France. All the time he was handled by various people who would give him some information about where he should go next.

Around three or four attempts to get on a lorry in France were thwarted when they were spotted by the driver, he said.

The court has been told the Afghans had been asked to meet in Lokeren, a small city in Flanders, before being driven around to disorientate them, then loaded on to the container and transported to Zeebrugge.

This area was particularly quiet that day as it was a Belgian Bank Holiday, prosecutor Michael Goodwin has said.

Inside the container there was about 4ft of space above the barrels which the immigrants were forced to hide in. Mr Goodwin said condensation was dripping from the roof.

Mr Goodwin has previously explained that lorry drivers have a responsibility to check their vehicles for people attempting to smuggle themselves on board, but officials have the discretion not to issue a fine under civil procedures if they believe the driver is an innocent party.

Mr Goodwin also outlined how defendant Timothy Murphy had been fined £5,000 after UK officials found 12 Afghans in a locker inside a lorry transporting frozen chips as he attempted to re-enter the UK through Coquelles, France, on August 5.

The prosecution claimed that as Murphy drove the lorry to Coquelles he was in regular contact with fellow defendants Stephen McLaughlin and Martin McGlinchey. McLaughlin was responsible for making the booking for the planned crossing.

On that occasion, the immigrants were found when UK border officials selected the vehicle for a "heart-beat" check which uses specialist equipment to identify any individuals hidden on board.

McLaughlin, 34, of Limavady, Londonderry; Murphy, 33, of Elmgrove, Londonderry; McGlinchey, 47, of Derryloughan Road, Coalisland, County Tyrone; and Taha Sharif, 38, who is Kurdish and lived in Tottenham, London, at the time, have all pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to facilitate illegal entry into the UK.

The second group of migrants were Afghan Sikh migrants, whose ages ranged from 16 months to 72 years old. Many were fleeing persecution in their homeland and are now claiming asylum in the UK.

Waheed Rahimi, 29, told one of the agents involved in the journey that "you killed us" after he came out alive from the container, he told the jury.

It was after he had endured the "harrowing experience" of being crammed in the container. He remembers saying it after receiving a call on his mobile once the container was opened.

He recalled trying to use his phone while in the container but not being able to because there was no reception. He suggested that one of these attempts may have connected when he arrived in Britain.

Mr Rahimi's brother-in-law had paid an agent 25,000 US dollars (about £15,900) so that he could flee Afghanistan.

The journey took Mr Rahimi to Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France and Belgium until he ended up in a McDonald's car park with Mr Esmati.

Both Mr Rahimi and Mr Esmati had been waiting in McDonald's for their contact who eventually came in a black Mercedes.

They were told to get in to a van. Mr Rahimi was warned he should make no noise, that they were going to be put in a container and that he should turn his mobile telephone off.

When the van doors slid open Mr Rahimi saw "30 or so people - they were all sitting there close to each other", he told the jury.

They later climbed in the container. Describing what it was like being locked in the container that night, Mr Rahimi told the court: "It was a very bad situation because after a couple of hours, I do not know how long we were sitting there, one of the ladies encountered some problems. Some of the kids needed to go to the toilet, some were thirsty but gradually everybody got in to problems.

"I told them 'let's bang on the container' so they would hear us and open it.

"The problem was that inside the container, there was no oxygen."

His throat had become very dry during the trip and drank one of the bottles of fluid which was inside the container. He said the agent called him when he got out of it.

Mr Rahimi told the court: "I was in a very bad condition. I started to swear at him and told him that you killed us."

He said the agent had promised that "when the container arrived in this country someone would get you and and then you would be in England".

Mr Rahimi has since claimed asylum. The hearing was adjourned until 10am tomorrow when Mr Rahimi will continue his evidence.

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