BEIJING (AFP, REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST) - British police investigating the discovery of 39 bodies in a truck said on Friday (Oct 25) they have arrested two more people on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people.
Eight women and 31 men, believed to be Chinese nationals, were found in the refrigerated trailer on Wednesday, in a case that has shocked Britain.
After detaining a 25-year-old truck driver from Northern Ireland at the scene on suspicion of murder, Essex police confirmed two additional arrests on Friday.
A man and a woman, both aged 38 and from Warrington in Cheshire, northwest England, “have been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and on suspicion of 39 counts of manslaughter”, the police said.
The first autopsies were to take place Friday as investigators attempt to establish how they died before the work begins on trying to identify the victims.
Emergency workers discovered the bodies early on Wednesday (Oct 23) inside the refrigerated container of a truck parked in an industrial area east of London, shortly after it had arrived on a ferry from Belgium.
The driver of the truck, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, remains in police custody having been arrested on suspicion of murder.
The bodies were reportedly discovered by the truck driver who passed out upon seeing the bodies after opening the refrigerator unit, the Evening Standard reported.
Police are conducting the country’s largest murder probe in more than a decade into what Prime Minister Boris Johnson described as an “unimaginable tragedy”.
Experts who follow human trafficking trends suggested those who were found dead could have been compelled into forced labour. Or they could have been migrants who paid their way for the dangerous journey gone wrong.
The local police, who have arrested the truck’s driver on suspicion of murder, said eight of the dead were women and 31 were men.
“All are believed to be Chinese nationals,” Essex Police said in a statement on Thursday.
However, the Chinese embassy in London said on Friday that British police had yet to confirm their nationality, a day after a consular official travelled to Essex.
An embassy spokesman earlier said Chinese authorities had read the reports with a “heavy heart” and were in close contact with police “to seek clarification and confirmation”.
Beijing said it hopes Britain can confirm the identities of the 39 people as soon as possible, foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said.
Ms Hua said at a briefing in Beijing today that "when we read these type of reports, our hearts are very heavy", adding that the incident was a sad tragedy.
"I can tell you about the situation and what I have learned. On the morning of the 23rd, the Chinese Embassy in the UK, noticed the British media report on the discovery of 39 deaths and immediately sought to verify the identity of the victims. British police said that if there were any news, they would notify us as soon as possible," Ms Hua said.
"At 10.40am local time on the 24th, that is, at 5.50pm in the afternoon of the 24th in Beijing, the Chinese Embassy in the UK received a phone call from the British police that they suspected the victims were Chinese citizens. The Chinese Embassy in the UK immediately dispatched staff to the scene to understand the situation and asked the British side to confirm the identity of all the victims as soon as possible, and to inform the Chinese side of the case.
"At the same time, the Chinese Embassy in Belgium also requested the relevant departments of Belgian police carry out a comprehensive investigation. Presently, Chinese Embassy's counselor in charge of consular affairs has arrived at the location of the incident, and is in contact with the local police. British police said that the identity of the victims is still being verified, and at the moment cannot confirm if they are Chinese nationals," she said.
Ms Hua said the Chinese government attaches great importance to this case. She said that the relevant departments of the Chinese side were working closely together to carry out various tasks.
"We hope that the British side will confirm and verify the identity of the victims as soon as possible, ascertain the truth, and severely punish the criminals involved in the case. This is the information that I am currently able to provide you. The British police are still in the midst of verifying facts. Currently we still are unable to confirm (that they are Chinese nationals)," she said.
"But regardless what country the victims are from, this is a great tragedy, and it has attracted the attention of the international community to the issue of illegal immigration. I think the international community should further strengthen cooperation in this area. By strengthening information and intelligence sharing, intervention can be made from the source or as early as possible to prevent such tragedies from happening again," she added.
Asked about the Chinese government's position after The Global Times said the UK must take responsibility for the tragedy, Ms Hua said this was the opinion of the Global Times.
"Does the Global Times say that this is the view of the Chinese government? No, and I just introduced China’s official position, or the official situation. What we said is we are maintaining close contact with the British police," said Ms Hua.
"British police have said they are verifying the identity of the victims. But you also know that in recent years we have also seen serious tragedies of illegal immigrants in many places, including Europe, of people dying a long way from home. Therefore, I think this issue should concern everyone, and everyone should strengthen communication and coordination and try to find ways to reduce or stop such tragedies from happening at the source," she said.
The deaths echoed another fatal episode, in June 2000, when the bodies of 58 Chinese immigrants were found in a shipping container in the English port city of Dover.
Those victims were believed destined to work in Britain as domestic servants, the authorities said. The Guardian reported they initially flew to Belgrade where they were taken to a safe house before being taken on to Hungary, Austria, France in vans, then the Netherlands, where they were put in another safe house. In Rotterdam they were put in the lorry where they would meet their untimely deaths.
The following year, a Dutch driver was sentenced to 14 years in jail for manslaughter. The immigrants, who paid a smuggling gang US$26,000, suffocated after the driver closed a vent on the truck during a five-hour ferry ride across the English Channel.
In a separate episode, in February 2004, at least 21 Chinese migrants who were picking cockles on the coast in the dark were caught in treacherous tides and killed. That incident, in Morecambe Bay, Lanchashire, shone a spotlight on illegal forced labourers smuggled into Britain.
“It (has) happened elsewhere but it makes you more shocked that it could happen in your area,” May Lovett, a 33-year-old owner of a cafe by the local docks, told AFP.
“I don’t know how people can be so evil,” added Rashda Imran, a mother living in the area for 18 years.
In China, the news had gathered more than 870 million views on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform by Friday morning, with more than 165,000 comments.
“No matter what nationality they are, it’s a tragedy,” said one.
Northern Ireland connection
With the help of immigration officials and the National Crime Agency (NCA), Essex Police are leading the biggest murder probe in Britain since the 2005 London terror attacks that killed 52 people.
Its officers searched three properties in Northern Ireland overnight in connection with the investigation.
The addresses are believed to be linked to the arrested truck driver, a 25-year-old man from the province, who police have remanded in custody until Friday. The driver has not been formally identified but a source familiar with the investigation said he was Mo Robinson.
Although the cause of death for the victims is unknown at the moment, if the container unit was turned on, the people inside could have frozen to death, because the unit could reach temperatures as low as minus 25 deg C. If the unit was turned off, they could have suffocated, because there would have been no ventilation.
The container section of the articulated lorry came by ferry from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge into Purfleet on the River Thames estuary – a crossing that takes nine to 12 hours.
Prosecutors in Belgium have launched their own probe and confirmed on Thursday the container had on Tuesday passed through Zeebrugge, one of the world’s busiest ports for cargo on trucks.
Belgian officials told local media the refrigerated container would not have been interfered with after it arrived at the Zeebrugge port as it would be sealed, The Guardian reported, an indication that the victims were already trapped inside the container before its arrival.
“(To) break the seal, bring 39 people onboard and apply a new seal without being noticed, that chance is extremely small,” said Bruges mayor Dirk de Fauw, adding that trailers were filmed until their arrival on the ferry.
Essex Police said the tractor unit of the truck entered Britain on Sunday on a ferry from Dublin to the Welsh port of Holyhead.
They had earlier said they believed the tractor unit originated in Northern Ireland.
The vehicle had licence plates issued in Bulgaria after it was registered there in 2017 by an Irish citizen, according to Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
He said the unit had not entered Bulgarian territory since and there was “no connection with us”.
A Vietnamese human rights activist has said one of the 39 people found dead in the back of the a truck might have originally come from Vietnam,
Ms Pham Thi Tra My, 26, 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, Ms Hoa Nghiem from Human Rights Space, a civic network based in Vietnam, said.
“It was told on the news that all 39 people were Chinese but Tra My’s family is trying to verify if their daughter was among them as the last dying text from her was co-incidently in time,” she wrote on Twitter.
“Our contact is getting more alerts that there could be more Vietnamese people in the truck.”
More Chinese migrants?
In another incident on Wednesday, police in Kent in south-east England said they had discovered nine people stowed away inside another truck, after stopping the vehicle on a motorway. They were handed over to immigration officials.
The NCA warned in its last annual report that traffickers “favour hard-sided refrigerated lorries to transport migrants to the UK”.
It also said Belgium had become “a major focus for people smugglers” targeting Britain.
Hua Po, a Beijing-based political analyst, said the flow of Chinese workers to Europe has gone up as “China’s own policy has become more and more conservative and closed” under President Xi Jinping.
“The survival of private enterprises is becoming more and more difficult, resulting in an increase in the number of unemployed people,” Po told AFP.
According to the state-run Global Times on Friday, many Chinese immigrants leave via Fujian, and their destinations are usually the US, UK, Western European countries or Japan. In an editorial, it said Britain and other European countries must accept some responsibility for the deaths of the 39 people.
Wang Yiwei, director of the institute international affairs at Renmin University in Beijing, told the Global Times that the “chaotic situation of Brexit” might have made the immigrants think it was a good time to try and enter Britain unnoticed.
Lucy Moreton of the Immigration Services Union, which represents UK border, customs and immigration officers, said desperate attempts to get to Britain appeared to be on the rise. She described a form of modern-day slavery that saw Chinese, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese and other people allow themselves to be shipped to Britain, where they toiled for years in construction, domestic service, agriculture, nail salons and the sex trade in order to “pay back” the debt they owed gangs for smuggling them abroad.
Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, said that there were not enough security checks in many European ports and that this could be exacerbated with Brexit.
“We’ve found it hard enough to try and get the Europeans to accept that this is a collective problem,” he said. “There are no incentives for the Europeans to really help us if we’re exiting the UK. Their view is that this is our problem, because these people want to get to the UK.”