Maidstone Crown Court where the four Bulgarians are appearing on people smuggling charges
Prosecutor Hugh Forgan told Maidstone Crown Court in Kent that a sharp-eared official had only become suspicious after hearing a child crying and forced the doors open to discover nine illegal migrants “jam-packed” into a hidden compartment at the back.
The accused men had used garlic to put off sniffer dogs as they drove off a cross-Channel ferry at Dover docks in June last year, it is claimed.
Among those concealed in a two-tier false bulkhead were a family of five Afghanis, including three children aged 15, 11 and two.
There were also a brother and sister aged 16 and 21 from Iraq, and two Iranians aged 41 and 14.
Mr Forgan said that several more trips had been made.
He said that when the vehicles were stopped and the side doors opened, they initially appeared to be empty of any cargo.
But each had been adapted to hide illegal immigrants.
He said: "The concealments were found to be right at the rear of the van, with people jam-packed into the very small space."
The three other human-trafficking journeys were said to be intercepted at Dover and Harwich in Essex.
A police sniffer dog in action at London Bridge
Each time there was a hidden compartment at the rear of the vehicle.
Doors on one van were forced with a crowbar in July to reveal a 38-year-old Afghani woman and her four children aged between five and 19 hidden in the same way.
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Another eight Afghani nationals aged between three and 62 were discovered two days later.
Mr Forgan said: "The external doors didn't open but officers found a wire in the rear of the van and the driver demonstrated how to open the concealment using that wire.”
Authorities made a third interception at Harwich on August 1 when the men used a German-registered van.
On that occasion seven illegal immigrants were discovered.
All four men – Veselin Denkov, 43, Ivan Georgiev, 39, Iliyan Marinov, 45, and 55-year-old Georgi Stankov – deny the charges of assisting unlawful immigration to an EU member state between May 1 and August 4 last year.
None of the men have a fixed address in the UK.
Each was a driver of a van when it was stopped – and subsequent checks with ferry companies showed they had made previous cross-Channel trips in vans documented as being empty.
Trips were made with P&O, DFDS and Stena Line ferries between Calais and Dover, Dunkirk and Dover and The Hook of Holland and Harwich.
All the drivers claimed to be “wholly unaware" of both the secret compartments and the illegals onboard, said Mr Forgan.
However, it was alleged one later offered to do a deal with immigration officers, claiming those involved belonged to the Mafia and he “knew a lot of things” he could provide information about.
Police sniffer dog on the tube network
A sniffer dog at work
Mr Forgan said the four defendants, who are of no fixed address in the UK, were all part of a gang dealing in smuggling illegal immigrants across the Channel.
He added: ”It was an organised, criminal enterprise and each defendant had a significant part to play.
"They all knew what they were doing, they all agreed to join in that criminal enterprise.
“In each case it would have been transparently obvious that they were driving a vehicle with concealment of people hidden inside their vans."
The trial continues.