UK murder investigation after 39 bodies found in lorry
Thirty-nine bodies were found in a lorry container on an industrial state 32 kilometres east of London yesterday prompting calls for more to be done to combat human trafficking in the UK.
British police launched a murder investigation after the discovery of the container at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, in the early hours yesterday. Emergency services were called out but all 39, including a teenager, in the container were pronounced dead at the scene.
The driver of the lorry, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, has been arrested on suspicion of murder. He has not been charged or identified.
Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills of Essex Police described the incident as “an absolute tragedy and a very sad day for Essex Police and the local community”.
She said that it could be a lengthy process to identify the victims and establish where they had come from.
Essex Police set up a “casualty bureau” with a phone line for people to call if they were
concerned about relatives, in an attempt to try to identify the victims.
Police initially said they believed the lorry had come from Bulgaria, entering the UK from Holyhead in Wales on Saturday. Holyhead is one of the main ports for ferries from Ireland.
But in a later update, police said the information they had given was incorrect and that the vehicle had travelled from Zeebrugge, Belgium on a ferry, arriving into the port of Purfleet on the River Thames in eastern England.
It then docked in the Thurrock area, near Grays, about 12.30am local time yesterday for about 35 minutes before departing, Essex Police said.
CCTV footage showed a lorry being driven towards the industrial estate where it was found at 1.10am. Police were called to the scene at 1.40am.
As reporters and bystanders gathered at the scene of the discovery, police announced that the lorry container with the bodies inside would be moved to a secure location in nearby Tillbury Docks.
Ms Mills said the move would mean that the bodies “can be recovered while preserving the dignity of the victims”.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was appalled by the news and was being kept updated by the police.
“We know that this trade is going on – all such traders in human beings should be hunted down and brought to justice,” he said.
While police have not formally connected the incident with human trafficking, a link has been assumed by politicians because of the way in which the bodies were discovered.
The MP representing the constituency around Grays described the news as sickening on Twitter.
Jackie Doyle-Price told Parliament: “To put 39 people into a locked metal container shows a contempt for human life that is evil. The best thing we can do in memory of those victims is to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.”
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the deaths were an unbelievable tragedy that needed answers.
“Can we just think for a moment of what it must have been like for those 39 people, obviously in a desperate and dangerous situation, for their lives to end, suffocated to death in a container,” he said.
The Bulgarian authorities confirmed the lorry was registered in the country.
“The Scania truck was registered in Varna under the name of a company owned by an Irish citizen,” a spokesman for the Bulgarian foreign affairs ministry said.
“Police said that it is highly unlikely that they are Bulgarians,” he said.
Police said they believed the trailer originated in Ireland.
Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, told Irish MPs that an investigation would be undertaken if it was established that the lorry had passed through the country.
“I think everyone’s thoughts in this House this morning are with those who are dead, those who have passed on and their families,” he said.
Zoe Smith, director of communications and advocacy at the Medaille Trust, a charity that provides refuge to victims of modern slavery, said they worked with clients who had been trafficked to the UK in several transport methods.
“One client from China was smuggled into the UK aged eight and all he can recall of his journey was being in ‘a moving room’ for two weeks,” Mrs Smith told The National.
“What that was is anybody’s guess. My guess is a shipping container, but we don’t know for sure.”
Yesterday’s discovery is the biggest tragedy involving illegal immigrants in the UK for nearly 20 years.
In 2000, 60 Chinese immigrants were found in the back of a lorry in Dover on the southern English coast. Fifty-eight of them suffocated to death, while two survived.
The lorry driver, a Dutch citizen, was jailed for his part in a people-smuggling operation.
A tragedy of that scale was not seen again in Europe until 2015 when 71 people were found dead in an abandoned lorry on an Austrian motorway.
The bodies on board were those of men, women and children from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The vehicle was thought to have been part of a Bulgarian-Hungarian people-smuggling operation.
Top, police work by a lorry, believed to have originated from Bulgaria, that contained 39 bodies. Above left, forensic officers comb the area as colleagues, right, sealed off the scene of the country’s worst migrant tragedy in years