Police escort the truck, that was found to contain a large number of dead bodies, as they move it from an industrial estate in Thurrock, south England, Wednesday Oct. 23, 2019. Police in southeastern England said that 39 people were found dead Wednesday inside a truck container believed to have come from Bulgaria. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Police escort the truck, that was found to contain a large number of dead bodies, as they move it from an industrial estate in Thurrock, south England, Wednesday Oct. 23, 2019. Police in southeastern England said that 39 people were found dead Wednesday inside a truck container believed to have come from Bulgaria. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

UK police expand probe, say 39 dead in truck all from China

The 25-year-old truck driver was being questioned on suspicion of attempted murder

All 39 people found dead in a refrigerated container truck near an English port were Chinese citizens, British police confirmed Thursday 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 25 miles (40 kilometres) east of London.

The 25-year-old truck driver, who is from Northern Ireland, was being questioned on suspicion of attempted murder but has not been charged. Police in Northern Ireland also searched three properties as they sought to piece together how the truck’s cab, its container and the victims came together on such a deadly journey.

READ MORE: Grim find as 39 found dead in 1 of UK’s worst trafficking cases

The truck and container apparently took separate journeys before ending up at the industrial park. British police said they believe the container went from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge to Purfleet, England, where it arrived early Wednesday and was picked up by the truck driver and driven the few miles to Grays.

The truck cab, which is registered in Bulgaria to a company owned by an Irish woman, is believed to have come from Northern Ireland, then headed to Dublin to catch a ferry to Wales before driving across Britain to pick up the container.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Chinese embassy employees in the U.K. were driving to the scene of the crime to aid the investigation and Belgian police were trying to track down information from Zeebrugge.

Groups of migrants have repeatedly landed on English shores using small boats for the risky Channel crossing, and migrants are sometimes found in the trunks of cars 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 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.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed in Parliament that people smugglers would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. English-speaking Britain, with its high demand for tourism, restaurant and agricultural workers, remains a very attractive destination for immigrants from all countries, even as the U.K. 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 are closing down less dangerous routes to the West and encouraging 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.”

Smugglers — many of whom are paid their final installment only when the person is delivered to his destination — earn more by packing as many people as possible into a ship or truck.

“Death is a side effect,” he said.

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

Sigona, who has studied Chinese immigrants to the U.K., said China’s rising middle class has more access to multiple routes to come to the West legally — say, with student or tourist visas. This means that the West is now closer to the public imagination in China, and could prompt those with fewer resources might put themselves and their families into debt in hopes of reaping similar rewards.

Belgian authorities said they had not made much headway in finding out how the container ended up in Zeebrugge.

“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,” said Eric Van Duyse, spokesman for the Belgian prosecutor’s office. “We don’t know how much time it stayed in Belgian territory. We don’t know if it stopped or not.”

U.K. authorities have warned for several years that people smugglers are turning to Dutch and Belgian ports because of increased security measures on the busiest cross-Channel trade route between the ports of Calais in France and Dover in England.

Britain’s National Crime Agency warned in 2016 that people smuggling using containers on ferries was “the highest-priority organized immigration crime threat.” The same year, the U.K. Border Force identified Zeebrugge and the Hook of Holland in the Netherlands as key launching points for smuggling people into Britain.

___

Raf Casert in Brussels and Ken Moritsugu in Beijing contributed.

Danica Kirka And Jill Lawless, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Jessica Sault of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation is hosting a virtual cedar weaving workshop through Royal Roads University on April 25. (Black Press Media file)
Cedar trees weave deeply into lives of coastal First Nations communities

Jessica Sault of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation hosts virtual cedar weaving workshop through Royal Roads

Island Health declared a COVID-19 outbreak in two houses at the Mount St. Mary long-term care home on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of Google Earth)
Island Health declares outbreak at Victoria long-term care home

Resident, staff member test positive for COVID-19 at Mount St. Mary facility

Island Health has extended an overdose advisory for Greater Victoria. (Black Press Media file photo)
Island Health extends overdose advisory for Greater Victoria

The extension warns of an increase in opioid and stimulant overdoses in the region

Leon the squirrel gets a fancy snack of almonds and sunflower seeds from a well-meaning local, who really should be leaving Leon to his own foraging devices. (Submitted)
Squirrels don’t need your nuts, thanks

Consider birding instead of wildlife feeding, SPCA suggests

Titan Sparks, who attends Grade 3 at Deep Cove Elementary, plants a seedling to help replace trees damaged by climate change near Deep Cove Elementary. (Louise Beaudry/Submitted)
North Saanich school plants a seed in the fight against climate change

Students at Deep Cove Elementary plant seedlings to replace downed trees

A peacock struts by a pair of lamb siblings at the Beacon Hill Children’s Farm, which remains closed to the public. (Don Descoteau/News Staff)
VIDEO: Victoria petting zoo optimistic about future after 13 months closed

Public helps non-profit Beacon Hill Children’s Farm with nearly $100,000 influx

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Have rising prices caused you to give up hope of buying a home?

Do you have a spare 50 grand or so kicking around (have… Continue reading

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of April 20

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

A teacher-librarian in Nanaimo was fired in 2019 for checking out an age-inappropriate graphic novel to a student. The discipline agreement was published Wednesday, April 21. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo teacher-librarian fired for checking out too-graphic graphic novel to student

Teacher had been previously disciplined and suspended on two occasions

Aria Pendak Jefferson cuddles ChiChi, the family cat that ran away two years ago in Ucluelet. The feline was missing until Courtney Johnson and Barry Edge discovered her in the parking lot of the Canadian Princess earlier this month. Aria and her parents were reunited with ChiChi in a parking lot in Port Alberni. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
An Island girl’s wish is answered as her cat came back

Courtenay family reunited with cat that went missing in Ucluelet in 2019

The Coastal Fire Centre is looking ahead to the wildfire season on Vancouver Island. (Phil McLachlan – Western News)
Coastal Fire Centre looking ahead at wildfire season on Vancouver Island

‘We’re asking people in the spring to be very careful’

There are lots of resources for seniors looking for information about COVID-19. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
COVID questions? Here are some phone-based resources available for seniors

Here is a list of numbers to keep on hand for Vancouver Islanders who aren’t fond of computers

Chum Salmon fry being examined with multiple motile and attached sea lice on Vargas Island. (Cedar Coast Field Station photo)
Study: Tofino fish farm sea lice infestations add fuel to push to remove open pens

Ahousaht First Nation asking for higher standards than what DFO requires

FILE – The Instagram app is shown on an iPhone in Toronto on Monday, March 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
Judge acquits B.C. teen boy ‘set up’ on sex assault charge based on Instagram messages

The girl and her friends did not have ‘good intentions’ towards the accused, judge says

Most Read