LONDON: All 39 people found dead in a lorry to the east of London are believed to be Chinese, British police said on Thursday (Oct 24), adding that raids had been carried out at three properties in Northern Ireland.
"We have since confirmed that eight of the deceased are women and 31 are men and all are believed to be Chinese nationals," British police said in a statement.
The victims were discovered in a container on the back of a truck in Grays, east of London, on Wednesday, shortly after arriving by ferry from Belgium.
The local Essex Police force, which is working with immigration officials, said their initial priority is to try to identify the victims, thought to be 38 adults and one teenager.
ALL VICTIMS TO UNDERGO CORONER'S PROCESS BEFORE IDENTIFICATION
Each of the 39 people must undergo a full coroner's process to establish a cause of death, before authorities move on to identifying them, added the police.
"This will be a substantial operation and, at this stage, we cannot estimate how long these procedures will take.
China's foreign ministry said on Thursday that representatives from the Chinese embassy in the UK were headed to the industrial park to verify the situation.
"The staff of the Chinese embassy in the UK is driving to the scene to verify this situation," the Chinese foreign ministry said on its Weibo social media account.
"We read with heavy heart the reports about the death of 39 people in Essex, England," said an unverified Twitter account regularly attributed to China's UK ambassador, Liu Xiaoming.
"We are in close contact with the British police to seek clarification and confirmation of the relevant reports," it said.
Police were given permission by magistrates to detain the 25-year-old driver for an additional 24 hours on Thursday.
Essex police said their priority was to ensure dignity for the victims in the largest investigation of its kind undertaken by the force, which was likely to be time-consuming.
"I want to express my sincere condolences to the families of the 39 people who have sadly lost their lives," Essex Chief Constable Ben-Julian Harrington said. "We will conduct this investigation with respect for every single one of those people."
"WE WILL NOT SPECULATE ON IDENTITY OF SUSPECT"
The truck was moved Wednesday to a more secure location at the nearby Tilbury docks so the bodies could be removed.
Detectives were continuing to question the truck driver, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland.
A source familiar with the investigation said he was Mo Robinson from Portadown in the British province and the BBC reported that police had raided two houses in Northern Ireland as part of the investigation.
In an update on Thursday, the police said they would not speculate about the suspect's identity.
"We want to be clear – we have not speculated about the identity of this man, and we will not do so," said the police. "We can confirm that three properties in County Armagh have been searched in connection with our investigation."
For years, illegal immigrants have attempted to reach Britain stowed away in the back of trucks, often seeking to reach the United Kingdom from the European mainland.
In Britain's biggest illegal immigrant tragedy, the bodies of 58 Chinese people were found crammed into a tomato truck at the southern port of Dover in 2000. The vehicle had begun its journey in the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.
In the latest incident, the container section came by ferry from Zeebrugge into Purfleet dockson the River Thames estuary - a crossing that takes nine to 12 hours.
The vessel docked there at around 12.30am Wednesday and the truck left the port area about half an hour later.
Its red cab unit, which had "Ireland" emblazoned on the windscreen along with the message "The Ultimate Dream", entered Britain via Holyhead in north Wales, having started its journey in Dublin, police said.
Irish company Global Trailer Rentals said it owned the trailer and had rented it out on Oct 15 from its depot in County Monaghan at a rate of 275 euros (US$305) a week, Irish broadcaster RTE said. The firm said it was unaware of what it was to be used for, RTE added.
The chairman of Zeebrugge port, Dirk de Fauw, said he believed the victims died in the trailer before it arrived there.
"We have a safe system with safety guards, we have cameras everywhere, we have policemen in the streets of Zeebrugge, in the dunes with horses," de Fauw, who is also mayor of the nearby city of Bruges, told Reuters Television.
"I think they were dead before they are coming here to Zeebrugge. I think so."
Police were called to the Waterglade Industrial Park in nearby Grays at around 1.40am.
Prosecutors in Belgium have launched their own probe and confirmed Thursday the container had on Tuesday passed through Zeebrugge, one of the world's busiest ports for cargo on trucks.
"It is not yet clear when the victims were placed in the container and whether this happened in Belgium," the federal prosecutor's office said.
It added that its investigation "will focus on the organisers of and all other parties involved" and be carried out in close cooperation with Britain.
Essex Police revealed 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 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 Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
He said the unit had not entered Bulgarian territory since and there was "no connection with us".
In another incident Wednesday, police in Kent in southeast England said they had discovered nine people stowed away inside another truck, after stopping the vehicle on a motorway.
After precautionary medical checks, they were passed to immigration officials.
AN APPALLING CRIME: BORIS JOHNSON
"It is hard to put ourselves in the shoes of those emergency services ... as they were asked to open that container and to expose the appalling crime that had taken place," Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
In Grays, locals were shocked at the deaths - and angry at the perpetrators of human trafficking.
"I don't know how people can be so evil," said Rashda Imran, a mother living in the area 18 years.
"They sell all these dreams about coming to our country."
The National Crime Agency said it was assisting the investigation and working to "urgently identify and take action against any organised crime groups who have played a role in causing these deaths."
It had warned in its last annual report issued last year 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.
Shaun Sawyer, the national spokesman for British police on human trafficking, said many thousands of people were seeking to come to the United Kingdom. While they were able to rescue many of those smuggled into the country, Britain was perceived by organised crime as a potentially easy target for traffickers.
"You can't turn the United Kingdom into a fortress. We have to accept that we have permeable borders," he told BBC radio.
The head of the Road Haulage Association said traffickers were "upping their game" and closer cooperation with European nations was needed, albeit that may be complicated by Britain's potential exit from the European Union.
"There is simply not enough being done in terms of security, in terms of the protection of vehicles across Europe," Richard Burnett told BBC TV.