A white lorry parked up in a nondescript Essex industrial estate became the unlikely focus of the nation on Wednesday morning. What looked like a mundane scene had soon provoked widespread shock, as it emerged to be what could be one of Britain’s worst ever people smuggling tragedies.
Andy Larkin, the manager of a mechanics firm, walked past the lorry at 2pm on Tuesday. “It had those big chrome American exhaust pipes,” he remembers. “Until about a month ago, there was a refrigeration company there and you used to get loads of lorries from all over Europe parked around there waiting to get in. But it’s unusual for them to be there now.”
Twelve hours later, the vehicle was taped off by police as forensics officers swarmed the scene in the early hours of Wednesday. Thirty-nine bodies – one a teenager – had been found inside.
The lorry itself was traced back to Bulgaria, and had arrived in the UK at Purfleet, Essex, on a ferry from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. Police, who were working to identify the victims, would not confirm their nationalities, but refugee charities organised vigils in their memory.
Although no links to people smuggling have been confirmed, migration groups said the incident highlighted how tightened border security was doing nothing to deter people from searching for safety in the UK, but rather pushing them into pursuing increasingly dangerous routes to reach British shores.
Four people have died while making desperate attempts to cross the English Channel over the past three months, amid a deterioration of conditions for displaced people in northern France as police crack down on their presence. This heightened hostility, along with increased security on both sides of the border, is pushing migrants into the hands of smugglers, according to campaigners.
Maddy Allen, field manager at Help Refugees, said the government had “blood on its hands” after the 39 deaths, adding: “If you tighten the security measures, people are going to take more dangerous journeys. The security measures in Calais and Dunkirk are getting tougher so people are taking alternative routes. It’s going to continue if they keep making the safer and ‘irregular’ routes more dangerous and more difficult.”
Clare Mosely, founder of charity Care4Calais, echoed her sentiments, saying: “Security is not the answer. It only leads to more deaths. It’s just horrific. What is it going to take for people to pay attention? Increased border security will not stop people from coming to the country, and this absolutely proves it.”
Lorry drivers who frequently cross British borders have noted a change in the tactics of people smuggling gangs, who they say are responding to increased security on their “traditional” routes to the UK by encouraging their vulnerable clients to embark on lorries from further away, putting them at higher risk.
Paul Mummery of the Road Haulage Association said: “There are very clever people smuggling gangs who will take an awful lot of money off people from poor parts of the world and get them into the back of lorries.
“If we look at the pattern of the last few years, they have started using more 'inventive' routes. And we’re seeing more and more reports of people taking their chances, perhaps because they’ve been deterred by what they see as greater security.”
In Grays on Wednesday, workers on the industrial estate were less concerned with borders and immigration policies. But the incident had clearly sent shock waves through the community. The arrival of migrants via lorries in the area was not uncommon, they said, but for dozens of people to lose their lives in the process was completely unprecedented.
Mr Larkin, reflecting on the tragedy he unknowingly got so close to the day before, said: “This is the first time there’s been anything like this. The more I think about it, the more shocking it is. And I do now think, could they still be alive? Could I have helped them?”
Martin Weaire, from a security company in the area, said: “It’s certainly not unusual for people to get off lorries here. You often see them get out and not know where they’re going. They sometimes knock on the door and ask for work.
“It’s big money for the smugglers and the drivers. Anything for greed. They drop people off here all the time. You often see border force chasing them down the road here. But this – this is terrible.”
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