Essex lorry deaths: Crime gang investigation launched after 39 bodies found in refrigerated trailer

Murder detectives try to identify 38 adults and teenager thought to have come in trailer from Belgium

Thurrock deaths: Aerial footage of lorry container in Essex where 39 bodies have been found

Detectives are investigating whether organised crime gangs could be behind the deaths of 39 people inside a refrigerated trailer, in what is feared to be one of Britain’s worst people-smuggling tragedies.

Police have begun trying to identify the 38 adults and a teenager whose bodies were discovered when the lorry stopped at an Essex industrial estate.

Officers want to work out the movements of the vehicle, which is thought to have arrived in the UK from Zeebrugge, in Belgium, in the early hours.

Detectives are questioning the driver, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, on suspicion of murder.

They have refused to confirm his identity but reports have identified him as Mo Robinson, from Portadown in Co Armagh.

There has been speculation that the suspect may have alerted the authorities himself.

Officials from the National Crime Agency said its specialists were working to “urgently identify and take action against any organised crime groups who have played a role in causing these deaths”.

Experts said temperatures in refrigerated units can be as low as minus 25C.

Just hours after the bodies were discovered, police in Kent found nine people alive in the back of a lorry on the M20.

Essex Police were called to the Waterglade industrial park in Grays, Essex, in the early hours of Wednesday, and taped off the area to investigate. Ambulance staff confirmed all 39 victims were dead.

Boris Johnson said on Twitter he was appalled by the incident and that the Home Office would work with police to find out what had happened.

He said he was receiving regular updates about the investigation which was focused on human trafficking.

“We know that this trade is going on – all such traders in human beings should be hunted down and brought to justice,” he said.

The National Crime Agency said the number of migrants being smuggled into the UK in containers and lorries had risen in the past year.

Charities have organised a vigil outside the Home Office in London on Thursday evening in memory of the 39 dead.

Campaigners including the Refugee Council want the government to provide safer, legal routes to the UK.

The Essex lorry was registered in Bulgaria by a company owned by an Irish woman, Bulgaria’s foreign ministry revealed, but said it was highly unlikely the victims were Bulgarians.

According to Boyko Borisov, the Bulgarian prime minister, the vehicle had not been in Bulgaria since 2017. “We are all affected by this mass death”, Mr Borisov told a television channel.

“Two more trucks are registered here. There is no way we can be connected except the truck sign. Nevertheless, we are working very well with the English services, so we will cooperate as much as possible,” he said.

Essex Police, who are being helped by immigration officials, said they believed the lorry and trailer had come from Zeebrugge into Purfleet, Essex, and docked in the Thurrock area, and that the tractor unit was believed to have originated in Northern Ireland.

Belgian authorities are investigating whether the trailer travelled through the country. “We have no idea at the moment how long the lorry spent in Belgium, it could be hours or days, we just don’t know,” a spokesperson said.

It’s feared the victims were the latest in a long series of efforts by migrants to enter Britain. In 2015, police arrested 27 suspected illegal migrants found inside a lorry at a service station on the M25 in Surrey.

In 2017, 16 people were discovered in the back of a lorry in Sussex in “exceptionally hot” conditions.

The worst case of migrant smuggling deaths in the UK was in 2000, when the bodies of 58 Chinese people were found in a container at Dover, Kent.

On Wednesday, police erected tents in front of and behind the lorry to investigate during the day, before moving the trailer, still containing the victims, to a secure location at Tilbury docks.

Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, said temperatures in refrigerated units can be as low as minus 25C and described conditions for anyone inside as “absolutely horrendous”.

Migrant smuggling gangs were a “massive issue” for lorry drivers, he said, and drivers were targeted by the groups “week in, week out”.

“It’s posed a massive issue to hauliers for years. Drivers are facing challenges from smugglers and from gangs continuously,” Mr Burnett said.

“They have to be very careful about where they park up, they have to be very careful about checking seals on their trailers to make sure nobody has broken in.”

Priti Patel, the home secretary, has signalled she is willing to consider tougher sentences for human traffickers.

A Home Office spokesperson said there were many safe and legal passages into the UK, and urged anyone seeking to claim asylum to do so in the first country they arrived in, adding that the government runs four resettlement schemes.

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