YEN THANH, (REUTERS, AFP) - The majority of the 39 people found dead in the back of a truck near London were likely from Vietnam, a community leader from the rural, rice-growing community where many of the victims are believed to have come from told Reuters on Saturday (Oct 26).
The discovery of the bodies - 38 adults and one teenager - was made on Wednesday after emergency services were alerted to people in a truck container on an industrial site in Grays, about 32km east of central London.
Police have said they believe the dead were Chinese but Beijing said the nationalities had not yet been confirmed.
Chinese and Vietnamese officials are now both working closely with British police, their respective embassies have said.
Father Anthony Dang Huu Nam, a Catholic priest in the remote town of Yen Thanh in northern-central Vietnam's Nghe An province, 300km south of Hanoi, said he was liaising with family members of the victims.
"The whole district is covered in sorrow," Mr Nam said, as prayers for the dead rang out over loudspeakers throughout the misty, rain-soaked town on Saturday.
"I'm still collecting contact details for all the victim's families, and will hold a ceremony to pray for them tonight. This is a catastrophe for our community."
Mr Nam said families told him they knew relatives were travelling to the UK at the time and had been unable to contact their loved ones.
Vietnam's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Saturday that it had instructed its London embassy to assist British police with the identification of victims.
The ministry did not respond to a request for further comment regarding the nationalities of the dead.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Saturday ordered an investigation into human trafficking allegations.
Police in the county of Essex declined to elaborate as to how they first identified the dead as Chinese, but said they would not give any more details about the identities or nationalities of the victims until the formal identification process had taken place.
The bodies of the 39 people have been recovered from the lorry where they were discovered on Wednesday, with post-mortems underway, said the police.
A senior British police officer said on Saturday that the authorities want help from members of the Vietnamese community in Britain and abroad to identify the 39 people found dead.
Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore said his officers had found "very, very few ID papers" among the bodies and hoped to identify the dead through fingerprints, dental records and DNA, as well as photos from friends and relatives.
He said he could not rule out the presence of other nationalities among the dead, but said his officers had received most contact from Vietnamese people concerned about friends and relatives.
"Although we cannot speculate on the nationality of the victims, it is clear to everybody that we are getting a large amount of engagement from the Vietnamese population from communities at home and abroad," Mr Pasmore said.
In Yen Thanh, Nghe An province, dozens of worried relatives of 19-year-old Bui Thi Nhung gathered in the family’s small courtyard home where her worried mother has been unable to rise from her bed.
"She said she was in France and on the way to the UK, where she has friends and relatives," said Ms Nhung’s cousin, Ms Hoang Thi Linh.
"We are waiting and hoping it’s not her among the victims, but it’s very likely. We pray for her every day. There were two people from my village travelling in that group".
In comments under a photo uploaded to Ms Nhung’s Facebook account on Monday, two days before the doomed truck was discovered, one friend asked how her journey was going.
"Not good," Ms Nhung replied. "Almost spring," she said, using a term in Vietnamese meaning she had almost reached her destination.
Other photos on her account show her sightseeing in Brussels on Oct 18. "Such a beautiful day," Ms Nhung posted.
Another person who may have died is Mr Nguyen Dinh Tu, who had been working illegally in Romania, and Germany, where he lost his job.
A few months ago, he asked his wife Hoang Thi Thuong to help him raise 11,000 pounds (S$19,234) to cover the cost of an illicit trip from Germany to the United Kingdom.
"I lost contact with him on October 21," Ms Thuong told Reuters. "I have a big debt to pay, no hope, and no energy to do anything".
Mr Tu’s father said relatives in the United Kingdom had told him that Mr Tu was inside the truck, and had been planning to pick him up.
"They were supposed to pick him up at the drop-off point but they called and said Tu was in that truck," Mr Tu’s father, Nguyen Dinh Sat, told Reuters. "I haven’t heard anything from my son".
Meanwhile, Mr Nguyen Dinh Gia told AFP Saturday he got a call from his son two weeks ago saying he was planning to go to Britain where he hoped to work in a nail salon.
His 20-year-old son Nguyen Dinh Luong had been living in France and said the journey to Britain would cost 11,000 pounds.
But Mr Gia received a call several days ago from a Vietnamese man saying "Please have some sympathy, something unexpected happened," he recounted to AFP.
"I fell to the ground when I heard that," Mr Gia said. "It seemed that he was in the truck with the accident, all of them dead," he added.
PARENTS ‘CAN’T BREATHE’
How the victims came to be in the truck is not yet known. Police are questioning the 25-year-old driver of the truck on suspicion of murder.
On Friday, police said they had also arrested three other people suspected of conspiracy to traffic people and manslaughter.
On Saturday, police in Ireland said a man in his early 20s from Northern Ireland, who is understood to be sought by Essex police as part of the investigation into the deaths, has been arrested at Dublin port after arriving on a ferry from France.
Some 70 per cent of Vietnamese trafficking cases in the United Kingdom between 2009-2016 were for labour exploitation, including cannabis production and work in nail bars, according to a British government report last year.
"Women and girls from rural areas are also considered more susceptible to trafficking," the report said.
Britain-based community group VietHome said it had received "photos of nearly 20 people reported missing, age 15-45" from Vietnam, a popular source for smuggled migrants looking to better their lives in the UK.
Nghe An is one of Vietnam's poorest provinces, and home to many victims of human trafficking who end up in Europe, according to a March report by the Pacific Links Foundation, a US-based anti-trafficking organisation.
Other victims are believed to come from the neighbouring province of Ha Tinh, Mr Nam said, where in the first eight months of this year, 41,790 people left looking for work elsewhere, including overseas, according to state media.
The province was ravaged by one of Vietnam's worst environmental disasters in 2016 when a steel mill owned by Taiwan's Formosa Plastics contaminated coastal waters, devastating local fishing and tourism industries and sparking widespread protests.
One suspected victim from Ha Tinh, 26-year-old Pham Thi Tra My, had sent a text message to her mother saying she could not breathe at about the time the truck container was en route from Belgium to Britain.
"That girl who said in her message that she couldn't breathe in the truck? Her parents can't breathe here at home," Mr Nam said.