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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Jeremy Clarkson
people
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
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: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own