Tilbury dock deaths: Grim new low for people smugglers, with a year-old child among 35 Afghan Sikhs held in container

Essex police trying to discover how long they had been in almost airless shipping container and its route to Britain

Crime Correspondent

Desperate immigrants found inside a stifling, airless shipping container were a smuggled group of Afghan Sikhs who included a one-year-old child, police revealed on Sunday night, in what experts said was a new low for organised gangs exploiting the world’s most vulnerable.

One man, aged in his 40s, was found dead after dock workers heard people screaming and battering on its sides of the container after it was unloaded at the Port of Tilbury. The 34 others included men, women and 13 children aged from one to 12, who were all suffering from dehydration and hypothermia. The oldest of the would-be immigrants was aged 72, police said, as four people remained in hospital last night.

Police were last night seeking to uncover how long they had been inside the metal container after speaking to the trafficked Afghans who appear to have fled their country after being battered by war, marginalised by the Taliban and fearful for their futures as the US prepares its troop withdrawal from the country.

Read more: The tragic tale of Tilbury's migrants exposes the hopelessness of our immigration system

Officials said that they believed that the 35 men, women and children were already inside when it  was captured on security cameras being driven by lorry into the secure Belgian port of Zeebrugge where it  was loaded on to the P&O Ferries commercial boat,  the Norstream.

Warning: Some viewers may find distressing  

“It’s very unusual for containers to be used for people smuggling,” said Tony Smith, the former director-general of the UK Border Force.

“They’ve been used before, but for drugs and guns. It’s a worrying trend if people are being put in them. But this is what the traffickers do – they don’t really care as long as they get their money.”

Officials were also trying to discover the route they took to Britain. A container ship from the Pakistan port of Karachi would take around 25 days to reach Tilbury but the arrival of the container by lorry at Zeebrugge suggests that they may have been transported overland into Europe via the Balkans before being moved to the ship.

The Belgian police said yesterday that it was virtually impossible that the 35 could have crossed the fences and got into the container while it was at the port, but officials were examining pictures from a large number of cameras that covered the area.

Essex police, which is  heading the inquiry, declined to identify the owner of the lorry. But the Belgian police spokesman, Peter de Waele, said: “We’re very hopeful that we have that information.  It’s an area that’s full of cameras, and the [shipping]  company takes a picture of every container.”

The National Crime Agency, in its annual threat assessment earlier this year, had warned of a rise in people-smuggling by organised gangs and cited instability in Afghanistan as one of the drivers for the changes.

The case comes 14 years after 58 Chinese immigrants were found dead in the back of refrigerated lorry carrying tomatoes at Dover after their air supply ran out.

Police were yesterday speaking with the 35 with the help of the local Sikh community in Tilbury, Essex, to try to find out what happened.

An ambulance passes a police officer standing guard at the entrance to Tilbury Docks in Essex An ambulance passes a police officer standing guard at the entrance to Tilbury Docks in Essex Sikhs have had a centuries-long presence in Afghanistan but only an estimated 3,000 are left in the country after fleeing the Soviet-led invasion, civil war and discrimination under the Taliban. They had to wear markings to identify themselves as Sikh.

Some of the largest Afghan Sikh communities are in India, Italy and Britain – where many live in Southall, west London, according to community leaders. .

“The welfare and health of the people is our priority at this stage,” said Superintendent Trevor Roe, of  Essex Police, who said that they had been through a horrific ordeal.

“Now they are well enough, our officers and colleagues from the Border Force will be speaking to them via interpreters so we can piece together what happened and how they came to be in the container,” he said.

Officials said an advanced tracking system is able to follow containers when they arrive in Europe, which includes details of the load and the shipper. A ranking system allows customs officers to investigate the most suspicious containers from the least reputable shipping companies.

But with nearly half a billion containers moving around the world every year, only a tiny fraction are searched, and police were alerted only because of the distress of those inside.

Shipping experts said that the aluminium containers would let in some air but would be extremely stuffy  and uncomfortable.

Bhai Amrik Singh, chair of the Sikh Federation (UK), said: “It is a disgrace the persecution of the tiny minority of Sikhs from Afghanistan has largely been ignored  and it takes an incident like this to remind us all that they are also being exploited by human traffickers.”

Trafficking a growing problem but difficult to detect

By Sophie Robehmed

Using shipping containers to conduct human trafficking is rare – partly because, as the latest case shows, it can be fatal. More generally, however, human trafficking using other methods is the world’s fastest-growing crime and one of the biggest sources of income for organised gangs, according to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime.

The border authorities have focused their efforts on combating smuggling into Britain at Calais, as the potential for using containers is huge – whatever the risks. Nearly half a billion shipping containers are transported around the globe each year.

In some of the few previous documented cases of deaths involving containers, 15 men and three bodies were discovered in Seattle in 2000 after spending a fortnight crossing the Pacific inside a 40ft-long container from Hong Kong.

There have also been incidents of container-related trafficking elsewhere along the west coast of the US in Los Angeles and Long Beach, and also in Vancouver, Canada.

Officials and shipping companies said they were unaware of similar cases in Britain, but an attempted smuggling operation in 2000 left 58 Chinese illegal immigrants dead in the back of a refrigerated lorry.

The Dutch driver Perry Wacker was jailed for 14 years in 2001 after the immigrants suffocated during the six-hour crossing from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Dover. Fellow defendant Ying Guo was given six years for conspiring to smuggle illegal immigrants into the country.

The court was told that Wacker sealed the fate of his victims by closing the only air vent on the trailer of his lorry before boarding the ferry to avoid them being seen by immigration officials.

The operation was said to have been organised by Chinese gangs, with the cargo worth about £1.2m to them.

Immigration minister James Brokenshire said yesterday: “The tragic incident at Tilbury is a reminder of the often devastating human consequences of illegal migration.

“We know that criminal gangs are involved in what amounts to a brutal trade in human lives. We also know that illegal migration is a Europe-wide issue.

“That is why we work closely and collaboratively with law enforcement and port authorities in neighbouring countries to target criminal networks and ensure that the organised gangs behind trafficking and people smuggling can’t operate with impunity,” Mr Brokenshire added.

The National Crime Agency predicted an increased involvement in people smuggling because of the conflict in Syria, instability in Afghanistan, and reduced controls on travel across Europe.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 by Georgia O'Keeffe
art
Sport
Robin van Persie leaves the field at the King Power Stadium last Sunday
football
Arts and Entertainment
tvPresenter back after daughter's Halloween accident
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch as John Watson and Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock
tv

Co-creator Mark Gatiss dropped some very intriguing hints ahead of the BBC drama's return next year

News
people

London 'needs affordable housing'

News
In this photo illustration, the Twitter logo and hashtag '#Ring!' is displayed on a mobile device as the company announced its initial public offering and debut on the New York Stock Exchange on November 7, 2013 in London, England. Twitter went public on the NYSE opening at USD 26 per share, valuing the company's worth at an estimated USD 18 billion.
news

Arts and Entertainment
Timeshift: The Ladybird Books Story (9pm BBC4 Sun 22 Dec)
BooksLadybird drops branding books for boys and girls
Arts and Entertainment
music Band accidentally drops four-letter description at concert
Life and Style
tech
News
peopleIan Thorpe addresses Ricky Martin rumours
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Female Support Workers / Carers - From £8.00 per hour

£8 - £12 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To assist a young family with the care ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Executive is required...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

£55000 - £70000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world lead...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world leading services pr...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines