The 39 Chinese men and women found dead inside a refrigerated truck container in Essex this week would have been in the trailer for least 12 hours, Belgian authorities says.
Port chief executive Joachim Coens said the refrigerated container would not have been interfered with after it arrived at Zeebrugge.
“A refrigerated container in the port zone is completely sealed,” he told Belgian media.
“During the check, the seal is examined, as is the licence plate. The driver is checked by cameras.”
Mr Coens said the trailer was sealed and the dock monitored by cameras. That made it likely the 31 men and eight women climbed into the container before it reached the port.
The container was then shipped unaccompanied to Britain, where emergency services were alerted to its grisly cargo at an industrial park in Grays, Essex, at 1.40am on Wednesday (local time).
By then, it was too late for the occupants, who were all dead.
On Thursday, British police began moving the bodies from the refrigerated trailer to a mortuary for autopsies and identification.
Eleven bodies were taken to a hospital in the town of Chelmsford by ambulance, escorted by police vehicles and motorcycles.
The remaining bodies will be transported in stages, with police expecting all of them to have been moved to a hospital by the end of the week.
Essex police said the investigation – one of Britain’s biggest mass murder probes – was the largest of its kind the force has had to carry out. It was likely to take some time to reach a conclusion.
Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills from Essex Police said the identification process for the Chinese victims would be “lengthy and complex.”
“This is an incredibly sensitive and high-profile investigation, and we are working swiftly to gather as full a picture as possible as to how these people lost their lives,” she said.
Deputy Chief Constable Mills said the priority was “preserving the dignity of the 39 people who have died and ensuring that we get answers for their loved ones”.
Meanwhile, police were on Thursday granted a further 24 hours to question the truck’s 25-year-old driver, who is from Northern Ireland. Named locally at Mo Robinson, he was arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of murder but has not been charged.
Police in Northern Ireland have also searched three properties as they try to work out how the truck’s cab, its container and the Chinese victims came together on such a deadly journey.
China has not formally confirmed the victims are citizens, but the Chinese embassy in London has sent some of its staff to Essex to meet police.
Chinese state media also lashed out at Britain on Friday (ADST), saying it and other European nations must accept some responsibility for the deaths.
“Such a serious humanitarian disaster has occurred under the eyes of the British and Europeans,” the state-backed Global Times said in an editorial.
“It is clear that Britain and relevant European countries have not fulfilled their responsibility to protect these people from such a death.”
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) October 25, 2019
European nations should make more of their commitments to human rights and ensure Chinese people were not abused or killed, the newspaper said.
Britain appeared not to have learned its lesson from 2000, when 58 dead Chinese migrants were found in the back of a truck at Dover, it said.
“Imagine how thoroughly European countries would take measures if dozens of Europeans were collectively tragically killed in some way,” the paper said.
“Could the British and European people ask themselves why they have not been able to avoid a similar tragedy … Did they take all the serious remedial action that they could have?”
Earlier, a spokesman for Global Trailer Rentals – which rented the refrigerated trailer from its yard in Ireland – said on Thursday the company was “shellshocked” and “gutted” after the grim discovery.
An Irish company whose trailer was used to smuggle Chinese migrants to the UK has said their directors are shell-shocked and gutted following yesterday's discovery of 39 bodies in its vehicle in Essex. | https://t.co/T5isxrB1D7 pic.twitter.com/nlcd0jPJOe
— RTÉ News (@rtenews) October 24, 2019