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
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
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

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London