U.K. police have launched a murder investigation after the bodies of 39 people were found inside a truck container on an industrial estate in southern England.
Police reported that everyone inside the container – 38 adults and one teenager – was found dead, adding that identifying the victims would be a “lengthy process” and their nationality was unknown.
The truck’s driver, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, has been arrested on suspicion of murder.
Police believe the truck traveled from Bulgaria and entered the U.K. on October 19 via the Welsh port of Holyhead, a major roll-on/roll-off entry point for traffic from Ireland. The truck and bodies were discovered by police shortly before 01:40 BST at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex.
Early indications point to human trafficking by criminal gangs as the cause of the deaths. Indeed, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has sent officers to assist the investigation into the 39 deaths with a remit of identifying any involvement by criminal gangs.
“We are working with partners including Essex Police and Immigration Enforcement to provide specialist support to urgently identify and take action against any organised crime groups who have played a role in causing these deaths,” a spokesperson told FreightWaves.
If the deaths are proven to be the result of people smuggling, the words of Duncan Buchanan, policy director at the Road Haulage Association (RHA), a U.K.-based trucking representative body, will be proven sadly prescient.
Speaking to FreightWaves earlier in October, Buchanan predicted a rise in human trafficking and the targeting of trucking by criminal gangs ahead of the scheduled exit from the EU of the U.K. on October 31 after when checks at U.K. ports are expected to be tightened.
“We’re in a situation now that 40, 50, 100 miles away from the main exit points of the EU there are migrants trying to get into vehicles,” he said. “It’s a serious problem. It hasn’t gone away; in fact, there has been an increase because the smugglers have been saying Britain is going to be ‘closed’ after October 31.”
Seamus Leheny, Northern Ireland policy manager for the Freight Transport Association (FTA), told the BBC that if the truck discovered this morning is found to have originated in Bulgaria, getting into Britain via Holyhead was an “unorthodox route.”
He added that, after reports of increased security checks at Dover and Calais, “it might be seen as an easier way to get in by going from Cherbourg or Roscoff, over to Rosslare, then up the road to Dublin” and then across to Wales and into England.
Arrests related to human trafficking to the U.K. are certainly on the rise. On October 21 the NCA reported the arrest of five men suspected of hiding migrants in a cattle truck in a bid to smuggle them into the U.K. The arrests followed the discovery of 13 migrants, including one child, found in a hay compartment on a lorry carrying livestock in the port of Calais, France, on October 19.
“Border Force officers had searched the vehicle acting on information from the NCA,” said an NCA statement. “After the search the lorry driver, a British national, was detained by the French authorities.”
Four more men, aged between 23 and 39, were then arrested by the NCA on suspicion of facilitating immigration in a series of raids in Romford and Brentwood, also located in the county of Essex, just a 30-minute drive from where the 39 people were found dead this morning.
Richard Burnett, RHA chief executive, said the investigation into the 39 deaths was ongoing and “our thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives.”
He added, “Whatever the circumstances of this tragedy it highlights the danger of migrant gangs’ people smuggling on lorries.”
A representative of the FTA added that migrants were currently targeting all Northern European ports, not just Calais in France.
“FTA is calling for the government to maintain close contact with its European counterparts to ensure security systems are maintained,” added the representative. “The safety of both the drivers and migrants must be protected. Our thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives so tragically.”