All 39 people found dead in a refrigerated container truck near an English port were Chinese citizens, British police confirmed yesterday as they investigated one of the country's deadliest cases of people smuggling.

The Essex Police force said 31 men and eight women were found dead in the truck early Wednesday at an industrial park in Grays, a town 40 kilometres east of London.

A magistrate gave detectives another 24 hours to question the driver, a 25-year-old Northern Ireland man named as Mo Robinson, who is being questioned over how the bodies ended up in the back of the refrigerated unit.

The victims were found shortly before 1.40am on Wednesday morning. Police previously believed one of the victims to be a teenager but all have been confirmed as adults.

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Mystery route of truck found in Essex carrying 39 dead bodies investigated
Grim find: 39 dead in one of UK's worst trafficking cases

Police forensic officers attend the scene after the truck driver phoned emergency services to alert them to the tragedy. Friends say Mo Robinson passed out after reporting the incident. Photo / AP
Police forensic officers attend the scene after the truck driver phoned emergency services to alert them to the tragedy. Friends say Mo Robinson passed out after reporting the incident. Photo / AP

Police believe the container came on a ferry ride from Belgium, which can take up to 12 hours and where authorities insist a scanner wouldn't have detected heat inside the cold unit.

A representative from Zeebrugge port suggested the victims would have been inside for at least 10 hours, spanning from before the container arrived to when their bodies were found.

The Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming said: "We read with heavy heart the reports about the death of 39 people in Essex, England [sic]. We are in close contact with the British police to seek clarification and confirmation of the relevant reports."

Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills said: "This is an incredibly sensitive and high-profile investigation, and we are working swiftly to gather as full a picture as possible as to how these people lost their lives."

"Our recovery of the bodies is ongoing and the post-mortem and identification processes, which will be lengthy and complex, can then begin."

"Our number one priority is the preserving the dignity of the 39 people who have died and ensuring that we get answers for their loved ones."

Truck driver to become a dad

Police in Northern Ireland searched three properties there as detectives sought to piece together how the truck's cab, its container and the victims came together on such a deadly journey.

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Floral tributes at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Thurrock, Essex, England yesterday after the bodies of 39 people were found in the back of a trailer. Photo / AP
Floral tributes at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Thurrock, Essex, England yesterday after the bodies of 39 people were found in the back of a trailer. Photo / AP

Mo Robinson's parents have flown to England to support their son. It's understood he is set to become the father of twins to his long-term girlfriend who lives in Northern Ireland.

Social media posts show the avid football fan had regularly made trips to Europe including to Denmark and Sweden.

One friend described him as a "100 per cent innocent" while another spoke of the "nicest family you could meet".

"I'm telling you now, he wouldn't have known those people were in the back," a friend told Mail Online.

"Apparently he'd parked up at the industrial estate in Essex and had gone to fetch the paperwork from a pocket on the inside of the lorry door.

"When he opened the container up and saw all the dead bodies, he was absolutely horrified — as anyone would be — and called the ambulance service who in turn alerted the police. I heard the container was refrigerated — the temperature was -25C and the bodies were frozen and had been dead for some time."

Another friend told the Evening Standard that Robinson "passed out" after opening the refrigerator door and finding the bodies.

Councillor Paul Berry said the village of Laurelvale, where the family live is in "complete shock." Robinson's father had learned of his son's arrest through social media and had not been informed by police.

"He had said he had been getting messages via people on social media on what was happening and at that stage it was not confirmed to him or his family that his son had been arrested," the councillor said.

"In the local area the feeling is one of complete shock and hope this is not a true story in terms of his involvement."

Berry said the family were "well respected" in the local area and the local community are hoping Robinson has been "caught up innocently in this matter".

Key questions over container movements

A number of questions remain unanswered about the container and where the victims came from.

Police confirmed the tractor unit of the truck — which includes the driver's cab — entered the UK via Holyhead on Sunday, October 20, having travelled from Dublin.

It then collected the trailer, which had travelled from Zeebrugge, Belgium, at the port of Purfleet at around 12.30am on the October 23.

The container with the 39 bodies entered the UK from the Port of Zeebrugge, in Belgium. Police are attempting to track the route of the container before it arrived in Zeebrugge. Photo / AP
The container with the 39 bodies entered the UK from the Port of Zeebrugge, in Belgium. Police are attempting to track the route of the container before it arrived in Zeebrugge. Photo / AP

The cab and trailer left the port shortly after 1.05am — around 35 minutes before police were called to the estate by emergency services.

Earlier in the day, the container arrived at the Zeebrugge port at 2:49pm local time just hours before it was moved to the UK.

Authorities in Belgium said it is not known when the victims were placed in the container and whether it happened in Belgium or at an earlier destination.

Prosecution spokesman Eric Van Duyse said Thursday that "up till now, we have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. We don't even know which road was followed by the truck in Belgium."

"We don't know how much time it stayed in Belgian territory. We don't know if it stopped or not. We don't know if the people got into the container or not," he said.

Belgium's Federal Prosecutor's office said it had opened a case focusing on "the organisers of and all other parties involved in this transport".

"This investigation will be carried out in close co-operation with the British police and judicial authorities," it said.

Police forensic officers examine the truck and trailer where 39 bodies were discovered. Photo / AP
Police forensic officers examine the truck and trailer where 39 bodies were discovered. Photo / AP

British Home Secretary Priti Patel went to Essex on Thursday for a briefing with police and tweeted that she had gone to thank officers "for their response to the tragic incident in Grays and receive an update on the investigation".

"I stand behind them as they continue their work to establish how this horrific event came to happen," she said.

A truck driver told the Irish Mirror it was possible the driver had no idea what he was hauling.

"The paperwork the driver deals with doesn't have to say what is in the trailer," the trucker said. "I don't go in the back of any of my trailers and if it's a sealed trailer I can't. It could be that the driver has gone to pick that up and not known.

"What is unusual is that he stopped so nearby. Normally drivers would go straight from here to a warehouse. You just wouldn't stop before your delivery and open your back doors."

Thermal imaging cameras used at ports are unable to detect people in refrigeration trailers.

'No connection' with Bulgaria

Meanwhile Bulgaria confirmed that the truck had license plates issued by the country.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said it was registered there in 2017 by an Irish citizen, and had not entered Bulgarian territory since.

"There is no connection with us, just the licence plates," he told national television.

Dimitar Dimitrov, executive director of the Bulgarian Chamber of Road Hauliers, told AFP many foreign hauliers registered in Bulgaria for financial reasons, and doubted whether a Bulgarian firm would employ Irish drivers.

The truck container was moved to the nearby Tilbury Docks on Wednesday evening so the bodies could be removed with dignity, deputy chief constable Pippa Mills from Essex police said.

"We are yet to identify them and must manage this sensitively with their families," she said.

Risky entry to UK

Groups of migrants have repeatedly landed on English shores using small boats to make the risky Channel crossing, and migrants are sometimes found in the back of cars and trucks that disembark from the massive ferries that link France and England. But Wednesday's macabre find in an industrial park was a reminder that criminal gangs are still profiting from large-scale trafficking.

The tragedy recalls the deaths of 58 Chinese migrants who suffocated in a truck in Dover, England, in 2000 after a perilous, months-long journey from China's southern Fujian province. They were found stowed away with a cargo of tomatoes after a ferry ride from Zeebrugge, the same Belgian port that featured in the latest tragedy.

Signs and candles were placed at a vigil for the 39 lorry victims, outside the Home Office in London in protest against Britain's immigration policy. Photo / AP
Signs and candles were placed at a vigil for the 39 lorry victims, outside the Home Office in London in protest against Britain's immigration policy. Photo / AP

In February 2004, 21 Chinese migrants — also from Fujian — who were working as cockle-pickers in Britain drowned when they were caught by treacherous tides in Morecambe Bay in northwest England.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed in Parliament on Wednesday that people smugglers would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Britain, with its high demand for tourism, restaurant and agricultural workers, remains a very attractive destination for immigrants from all countries, even as the UK is rethinking its immigration rules as it prepares to leave the 28-nation European Union.

Nando Sigona, a professor of migration studies at the University of Birmingham, said tougher migration controls born of populist anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe were closing down less dangerous routes to the West, which has encouraged smugglers to take more risks and try out new routes.

"The fact that all these people came from the same country could hint to a more organized crime scenario," he told the Associated Press. "Usually, if it's an ad hoc arrangement at the port, you would get a bit of a mix of nationalities."

He said smugglers can earn more by packing as many people as possible into a ship or truck.

"Death is a side effect," he said.

- with AP