Police in Britain are trying to identify the names and nationalities of 39 bodies found packed into in the back of a truck east of London as concern grows that people smugglers are exploiting weak security at ports in Britain and Belgium.
Essex police said the truck was found just before 2 a.m. on Wednesday in an industrial park in Grays, a town along the River Thames. Of the 39 bodies, 38 were adults and one was a teenager.
Police believe the trailer containing the bodies was picked up in the Purfleet container facility near Grays at around 1 a.m. The truck hauling the trailer had come from Northern Ireland and a 25-year man from Northern Ireland has been arrested. Media outlets have named him as Mo Robinson.
The trailer is believed to have travelled on a ferry from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge and it arrived at Purfleet around 12:30 a.m. It’s not clear how the trailer got to Belgium or how far the people inside had travelled.
"This is a tragic incident where a large number of people have lost their lives. Our inquiries are ongoing to establish what has happened,” Chief Superintendent Andrew Mariner said. "We are in the process of identifying the victims, however I anticipate that this could be a lengthy process.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the tragedy “truly heartbreaking.” In a statement the House of Commons he added, ”All such traders in human beings should be hunted down and brought to justice.”
The case has raised new questions about security at ports and what happens after Britain leaves the European Union. There are fears that a disorderly Brexit could cause havoc at the border and weaken security if there’s a lack of co-operation or if officials become overwhelmed with customs checks.
Most freight traffic enters Britain through the port of Dover from Calais, France, and security has been increased by both countries to stop people smuggling. A crackdown on migrant camps in Calais has also led them to move to Zeebrugge on the Belgian coast, which has struggled to cope with the influx.
Zeebrugge’s port is a major shipping centre and around half of its trade is with Britain. The port handles 70 ship sailings a week to Britain and it’s one of the world’s largest transit points for new vehicles. It also specializes in shipping unaccompanied trailers, where one driver drops off a trailer for shipping and another driver picks it up on arrival. The trailers are supposed to be sealed and checked to ensure they have not been opened or tampered with on the way.
Zeebrugge has become a hot spot for people smuggling, according to Britain’s National Crime Agency. “The majority of clandestine attempts to enter the U.K. involve concealments in [heavy goods vehicles] and other motor vehicles from Calais, Zeebrugge or through the Eurotunnel,” the agency said in its 2019 annual report. “Migrants put themselves in the hands of criminals, who use different methods to transport them, often in difficult and dangerous conditions.”
Security has also come into question at the Purfleet port, which specializes in container traffic and carries out limited inspections. The events in Essex “puts into question on both sides the robust nature of how trailers are checked in and out,” said Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, which represents the British freight industry.
Mr. Burnett said truckers are under constant pressure from migrants and people smugglers. The smugglers often break into trailers at night, load up migrants and re-bolt the doors. Sometimes a driver picking up a trailer might not even know there were stowaways inside.
Mr. Burnett pointed out that the trailer in Essex was a refrigerated unit, meaning the people inside would have faced horrible conditions. “Even if it was chilled to minus 5 [C] or if it was frozen at minus 25, that’s horrendous conditions," he said. “The panic when those people knew that they couldn’t get out must have just been unimaginable.”
It’s not clear where the occupants came from, but Bulgarian officials confirmed the truck was registered in Bulgaria by a woman from Ireland in 2017. However, they said the truck left Bulgaria almost immediately after registration. Mr. Burnett said some unscrupulous British truck companies “flag out” their trucks by registering them in another country as a way of avoiding tougher British regulations. The refrigerated trailer is owned by an Irish company that rented it out for one week on Oct. 15.
Britain has long been a target for illegal immigration and people smugglers and there have been an increasing number of deaths. The worst case came in 2000 when police found the bodies of 58 migrants in a truck in Dover. Around 1,300 people have also crossed the English Channel in small boats this year, roughly twice the number in 2018, and at least three are believed to have died.
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