British police have been granted an extra day to hold the driver of a truck at the centre of an alleged major people smuggling probe, as friends and family of the young man come forward to protest his innocence.
UK media is reporting that Mo Robinson, 25, passed out in shock when he opened the back of his truck to inspect paperwork only to discover frozen bodies inside.
Police are still treating Mr Robinson as a murder suspect and will continue questioning him for 24 hours.
In a statement. Essex police said: “Throughout yesterday, our detectives worked with partners to conduct initial enquiries into these tragic deaths and we continue to work diligently to piece together the circumstances of this horrific event, which has led to the largest murder investigation in our force’s history.
On Thursday night, Essex police confirmed the 39 people found dead in the refrigerated container were Chinese nationals – 31 men and 8 woman including one female who they initially identified as as teen.
British police are working with their Chinese counterparts to identify the bodies which will be carefully removed from the container and examined to establish the cause and time of death.
Whether the disturbing discovery was connected to a people smuggling ring is yet to be formally established, but it’s looking increasingly likely it is part of a sophisticated, multinational trafficking plot.
A Global Trailer Rentals spokesperson, who rented out the refrigerated trailer on October 15 from their yard in Co, Monaghan, Ireland, said the company was “shellshocked” and “gutted” after the grim discovery.
The company said it provided police with information about the person and company that leased the trailer, and offered to make tracking data available.
Its directors said the company was “entirely unaware” the trailer was to be used in the manner it was, the spokesperson told RTE News on Friday (AEST).
Embassy Spokesperson Statement: We read with heavy heart the reports about the death of 39 people in Essex, England. We are in close contact with the British police to seek clarification and confirmation of the relevant reports.
— Liu Xiaoming (@AmbLiuXiaoMing) October 24, 2019
While migration from Africa and Eastern Europe is more common, authorities are aware of trafficking activity between China and the UK. In an eerily similar tragedy, 58 Chinese people were found dead in a container at Dover in 2000.
The National Crime Agency said it is trying to identify any “organised crime groups who may have played a part”.
Meanwhile, in a small village in Northern Ireland, police have been searching properties connected to the case.
Councillor Paul Berry said the village of Laurelvale, where driver Mo Robinson’s family lives, was in “complete shock”.
“In the local area the feeling is one of complete shock and hope this is not a true story in terms of his involvement,” Cr Berry said.
Cr Berry, who knows Mr Robinson’s father well, said the family were “very well respected” in the area.
“The local community is hoping that (Mo Robinson) has been caught up innocently in this matter but that’s in the hands of Essex Police, and we will leave it in their professional hands to try to catch the perpetrators of this,” he said.
Police would be working to gather evidence to figure out what Mr Robinson knew before he drove a truck to Belgium to pick up the container – and at what point he was aware people were in the back of his truck.
An unnamed witness told the Evening Standard Another friend of the family told the MailOnline: “Mo is from the nicest family you could meet. I’m telling you now, he wouldn’t have known those people were in the back.
‘”When he opened the container up and saw all the dead bodies, he was absolutely horrified – as anyone would be – and called the ambulance service.”
Questions at the border
Whatever the outcome of the investigation, the tragedy would undoubtedly continue to shine a spotlight on illegal migration.
Questions are already being raised about whether border officers thoroughly check trucks. But the Immigration Services Union said it was impossible to check all freight and officers had to rely on “intelligence” before selecting particular trucks for thorough searches.
All over Europe there have been grisly discoveries of bodies of migrants left in trucks and shipping containers: the bodies of 58 Chinese people were found in a truck in Dover in 2000, and in 2015, the bodies of 71 people thought to be Syrian migrants were found in an abandoned lorry on a motorway in Austria.
In 2014, the sounds of screaming and banging alerted Tilbury dock workers to a shipping container packed with 35 people from the Indian subcontinent. One had died and dozens were taken to hospital with dehydration and hypothermia.
Why are people risking their lives to get to the UK?
Thousands of people desperate to escape their home countries have died trying to make it to Europe and the UK.
Their reasons for seeking safety in western countries are vast. Many flee to avoid persecution because of their religious or political beliefs, or sexuality.
Figures from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) show more than half of the world’s refugees come from just three countries: Syria (6.7 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million) and South Sudan (2.3 million).
So far this year, 2524 people have died or gone missing trying to migrate to another country, according to records from the UN’s International Organization for Migration.
Of those, 55 have died in Europe and 1078 trying to cross the Mediterranean.
The majority of those who died in Europe came from South Asian countries such as India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, while those who died in the Mediterranean came from African countries.
I offer mine & @EssexPoliceUK condolences to the families who have lost loved ones in tragedy in Essex. My thanks to all working on the investigation or supporting it & I appeal for information to help detectives investigate this crime. @ukhomeoffice @NCA_UK @thurrockcouncil pic.twitter.com/jgOt5oVclW
— BJHarrington CC (@BJH251) October 24, 2019
Most drowned (about 17,480 migrants globally have drowned since the start of 2014), while many others died in vehicle accidents or by suffocating in the back of intercontinental trucks.
Some have resorted to even more extreme method to seek safety.
In July, a suspected stowaway fell to his death from the landing gear of a Kenya Airways flight travelling from Nairobi to Heathrow Airport.
The man’s body – ice cold from travelling at an altitude of 40,000 feet for more than eight hours – landed in a garden in London, just one metre away from where a resident had been sunbathing.
The UK’s National Crime Agency said organised crime groups deliberately targeted vulnerable refugees and charged them large sums of money in exchange for smuggling them into the UK.
These criminal gangs often used violence to control these groups of desperate migrants by robbing, torturing, raping and beating them along the way.
Some of these illegal people smuggling networks are extensive, with members scattered in a number of countries to help funnel people through checkpoints.