The driver, identified as Morris Robinson, 25, remained under arrest on suspicion of murder. Investigators were also at work in Belgium and Northern Ireland.
LONDON – The39 people found dead in a refrigerated truck trailerin southeastern England were believed to be Chinese citizens, the police said on Thursday, shedding new light on what appeared to be the latest case of human trafficking gone tragically wrong.
Eight of the dead are women and 31 are men, according to astatement from Essex Police. They said that each body would undergo a full coroner’s examination to identify the victim and establish the cause of death, a process that would take time.
“Our work continues today, and for the foreseeable future, to be focused on providing the victims and their loved ones with an investigation that is filled with dignity, compassion and respect for those who have died, ”the statement said.
The tragedy bears striking similarities to a case in 2000 in whichChinese migrantswere found dead, also in a refrigerated truck, in Dover, Britain’s busiest port. Then as now, the container had been shipped across the English Channel from Zeebrugge, in Belgium.
The driver of the truck found on Wednesday, a 25 – year-old man from Northern Ireland, was arrested on suspicion of murder.
Information about him began to emerge on Thursday, when he was identified by elected officials and the British news media as Morris Robinson, who also went by the name Mo.
A member of the Northern Ireland assembly, Paul Berry, who lives in the same village as Mr. Robinson’s family, confirmed the driver’s identity on Thursday and said he had spoken with the family shortly after the arrest.
“Something like this which has been thrust upon them at this stage is obviously very devastating for them,” Mr . Berry said, describing the Robinsons as “very well respected” and “a lovely family.”
But he also added that the thoughts of those in the community were focused on “the families of the 39 victims who have tragically lost their lives. ”
The police have yet to say anything about who the victims were, how and when they died, how long they had been in the trailer, where it originated, or who was responsible.
The truck was found early Wednesday at an industrial site in Grays, in the county of Essex, about 25 miles east of London. The local ambulance service was called out first, then summoned the police at 1: 40 am All 39 victims were pronounced dead at the scene.
Attention has now turned to piecing together the movements of the refrigerated container and determining whether the dead fell victim to an operation that was illegally smuggling people into the country.
The tractor unit of the truck entered Britain through the Welsh port of Holyhead on Sunday, arriving on a ferry from Dublin, the police said. The container traveled on a ship from Zeebrugge, arriving after midnight on Wednesday at the Essex port of Purfleet, where it was hitched to a truck and driven away, officials have said.
Belgium’s Public Prosecutor’s Office said on Thursday that it had opened an investigation. The Belgian authorities laid out a further timeline for the movements of the container, noting it had arrived in Zeebrugge at 2: 49 PM on Tuesday and left the port that same afternoon.
“It is not yet clear when the victims were placed in the container and whether this happened in Belgium,” the prosecutor’s office said in a statement.
Essex Police said the case was the largest murder investigation in its history. Britain’s National Crime Agency is also involved in the investigation and is working to “urgently identify and take action against any organized crime groups who have played a role in causing these deaths,” a spokesman for the agency said in a statement.
While the circumstances surrounding the deaths are still unclear, Britain has long been a destination for migrants, and smugglers have often used English Channel crossings to traffic people into the country. But migration patterns and smuggling techniques are constantly shifting, based on political developments and the changing nature of security at borders.
In recent months, Belgium has become a major center for smugglers attempting to covertly transport people into Britain,according to the National Crime Agency. The number of smugglers based there has increased since the closing of a nearby migrant camp in Dunkirk, France, in March 2017.
Most covert transport methods pose significant safety risks: Migrants often travel in shipping containers or commercial vehicles that are transported by truck, rail or ferry, or cross the channel on small boats.
Organized gangs frequently smuggle people in hard-sided trucks like the one in Essex , while small-time traffickers tend to use soft-sided trucks, the agency said.
The police searched three properties in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, on Wednesday night, according to the police statement. But, according to Mr. Berry, the local politician, the searches were about 15 miles from Mr. Robinson’s home, which is in the village of Laurelvale, near the town of Portadown.
As of Thursday morning, Mr. Robinson was still being held by Essex Police. Mr. Robinson posted often about trucking on his Facebook page, where the tractor unit of the truck where the bodies were discovered can be seen in several photos.
A decal across the front of its windshield read “The Ultimate Dream.”
Berry described a feeling of numb shock in Laurelvale, a tightknit community of roughly 1, 500 people.
“It’s a quiet, laid-back village and never has such media spotlight been brought upon it,” he said. “Its just a very, very sad story.”
But he cautioned that it was still unclear what knowledge or involvement Mr.
“Clearly we need to allow the police time, the Essex police, to conduct their investigation to carry that out to ensure that whoever was responsible for this is brought before the courts and they receive that justice that is required, ”Mr. Berry said.
Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.
Megan Specia is a story editor on the International Desk in London, specializing in digital storytelling and breaking news. She has been with The Times since 2016.@meganspecia
Elian Peltier is a breaking news reporter in the London bureau of The New York Times.@ElianPeltier
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