British police said on Thursday that 39 people found dead in a truck near London were all believed to be Chinese nationals, in a case that has triggered national outrage over the people trafficking business.
Emergency workers discovered the bodies early Wednesday inside the refrigerated container of a truck parked in an industrial area east of London, shortly after it had arrived on a ferry from Belgium.
Police are conducting the country's largest murder probe in more than a decade into what Prime Minister Boris Johnson described as an ‘unimaginable tragedy’.
The local police force, who have arrested the truck's driver, said in a statement that eight of the dead were women and 31 were men.
‘All are believed to be Chinese nationals,’ Essex Police said.
China's foreign ministry said its embassy staff in London were heading to the scene ‘to verify this situation’.
An embassy spokesperson said Chinese authorities had read the reports with a ‘heavy heart’ and were in close contact with police ‘to seek clarification and confirmation’.
The deaths echoed the discovery of 58 Chinese immigrants hidden in a Dutch truck in the English port of Dover in 2000. Only two people had survived.
- 'Substantial operation' -
With the help of immigration officials and the National Crime Agency (NCA), Essex Police are leading the biggest murder probe in Britain since the 2005 London terror attacks that killed 52 people.
The force confirmed officers had searched three properties in Northern Ireland overnight in connection with the investigation.
The addresses are believed to be linked to the arrested truck driver, a 25-year-old man from the province.
Police said a coroner would try to establish the cause of death of the 39 victims, before investigators then attempt to identify each individual.
Officials moved the truck Wednesday to a ‘secure location’ at nearby Tilbury docks, ‘to give the utmost dignity to those within the trailer as we prepare for a coroner's post-mortem examination’, Essex Police said.
- Route from Zeebrugge -
The container section came by ferry from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge into Purfleet on the River Thames estuary -- a crossing that takes nine to 12 hours.
The vessel docked there at around 12:30 am Wednesday (2330 GMT Tuesday) and the truck left the port area about half an hour later.
Police were called to the Waterglade Industrial Park in nearby Grays at around 1:40 am.
Prosecutors in Belgium have launched their own probe and confirmed Thursday the container had on Tuesday passed through Zeebrugge, one of the world's busiest ports for cargo on trucks.
‘It is not yet clear when the victims were placed in the container and whether this happened in Belgium,’ the federal prosecutor's office said.
It added that its investigation ‘will focus on the organisers of and all other parties involved’ and be carried out in close cooperation with Britain.
Essex Police revealed the tractor unit of the truck entered Britain on Sunday on a ferry from Dublin to the Welsh port of Holyhead.
They had earlier said they believed the tractor originated in Northern Ireland.
The vehicle had licence plates issued in Bulgaria after it was registered there in 2017 by an Irish citizen, according to Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
He said the unit had not entered Bulgarian territory since and there was ‘no connection with us’.
- 'Clandestine entry' -
In another incident Wednesday, police in Kent in southeast England said they had discovered nine people stowed away inside another truck, after stopping the vehicle on a motorway.
After precautionary medical checks, they were passed to immigration officials.
In Grays, locals were shocked at the deaths -- and angry at the perpetrators of human trafficking.
‘I don't know how people can be so evil,’ said Rashda Imran, a mother living in the area 18 years.
‘They sell all these dreams about coming to our country.’
The NCA warned in its last annual report issued last year that traffickers ‘favour hard sided refrigerated lorries to transport migrants to the UK’.
It also said Belgium had become ‘a major focus for people smugglers’ targeting Britain.
Similar cases have also occurred in continental Europe.
In August 2015, the bodies of 71 migrants including a baby girl were found piled up in the back of a poultry refrigerator lorry left in Austria.