Stowaway deaths linked to lack of air: Heather Mills reports on the Romanians found dead in a cargo container

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THE FOUR Romanian stowaways found dead in a cargo container at Felixstowe at the weekend may have suffocated, it emerged yesterday. One 'shocked and dazed' survivor was found locked in with his dead companions.

Post-mortem examinations are due to take place today to establish the cause of the deaths, but Suffolk police are treating them as accidental. Sources suggested suspicion centred on ventilation in the container.

The discovery was made by dockers who heard the fifth man hammering on the container wall. He was taken to hospital but later released into police and immigration officials' custody. He named the four dead men, two aged 20, the others aged 27 and 36, and has sought leave to remain in Britain, although it is believed the five had intended to travel on to the United States.

Such deaths are not uncommon among the estimated 6,000 stowaways a year. Most head for the West from Africa and the Far East, fleeing from penury or political persecution, but there has been a recent surge of Romanians and other East Europeans aiming mainly for Canada or the US.

Stowaways have been found squeezed into tiny gaps between containers, huddled beneath the floors in engine-rooms and even submerged in the ship's bilge, breathing through tubes. A year ago the bodies of two West Africans were found in a vessel at Rotterdam. They had been at sea for 12 days with only enough food and water to last them three days. Last April two Romanians were found dead at Felixstowe.

But others fall prey to unscrupulous masters, who regard stowaways as an expensive nuisance - they cost the shipping industry an estimated pounds 2.5m a year - because they must be fed and returned to their homeland after time-consuming immigration procedures. In Le Havre, six members of a Ukrainian crew are due to stand trial for murder and extortion after a group of Ghanaian stowaways were said to have been robbed, shot, and thrown overboard. One escaped.

Eighteen months ago an Algerian was picked up in the Channel 10 miles from Dover, claiming he had been thrown overboard with his hands tied together by the crew of an oil tanker. In a third case three Greek captains said the killing of stowaways was 'common and universal'. They were giving evidence at the trial of the master of a Greek cargo ship, who was jailed for 10 years for throwing 11 Kenyan stowaways overboard. Only six survived.

It is thought that the five Romanians stowed away in the French city of Lyon at the end of last week. The container, bound for Galveston, Texas, was loaded on the Cypriot-registered vessel Patria and left Le Havre at 10pm on Friday, calling in at Felixstowe 17 hours later.