Essex lorry victims trapped near Belgian coast: officials

The 39 people who were found dead in a refrigerated lorry trailer in Essex on Wednesday were already trapped when they arrived at the Belgian coast en route to England, local officials have said, as police confirmed that the victims were all Chinese nationals. The Belgian officials said the eight women and 31 men would have been locked in the trailer at temperatures as low as -25C for at least 10 hours after the trailer arrived at the port of Zeebrugge on Tuesday afternoon.
As the investigation gathered pace, police secured an additional 24 hours to question a lorry driver arrested at the scene of the discovery, and inquiries broadened to involve the authorities in Ireland, Belgium and China.
The Irish company that owns the trailer said it was cooperating with police and insisted it had no connection to the driver, 25-year-old Mo Robinson.
One report claimed detectives were focusing on three suspected gang members based in Northern Ireland near the border. The Daily Telegraph cited security sources saying they were concentrating on a criminal gang based in south Armagh with links to dissident paramilitaries.
The chief executive of Zeebrugge port, Joachim Coens, said the trailer would not have been interfered with after it arrived there at 2.49 pm. “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.”
The mayor of Bruges, Dirk de Fauw, echoed this message in an interview on VRT, saying trailers were filmed until their arrival on the ferry. “[To] break the seal, bring 39 people onboard and apply a new seal without being noticed, that chance is extremely small.”
The comments, along with the news that the victims were Chinese, strengthened suspicions that it could be a case of trafficking rather than economic migrants or refugees. Experts said the majority of Chinese people brought to the UK illegally found themselves in a situation of debt bondage when they reached the country.
New details of the journeys taken by the trailer and cab emerged, raising further questions about when and where the victims were locked inside the trailer and by whom.
The refrigerated trailer compartment arrived unaccompanied in the UK from Zeebrugge early on Wednesday morning and was collected at the port of Purfleet at 1.05 am by a lorry cab driven by Robinson, a self-employed haulier from Northern Ireland.
Police said Robinson’s burgundy cab arrived at Holyhead by ferry from Dublin on Sunday. The trailer had been leased five days earlier in County Monaghan, just south of the Irish border, a spokesman for Global Trailer Rentals (GTR), the operating company, confirmed.
Local sources said Robinson’s parents, who live in the village of Laurelvale, had travelled to England to visit their son at the request of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Three properties in Northern Ireland – Robinson’s home, a nearby property he used to share with his parents and a third site in Armagh – were raided overnight. Computers were taken away as part of the investigation, sources said.
The first bodies of the victims were removed by ambulance on Thursday night from the dockyard warehouse where the vehicle was being examined, and taken by ambulance to a hospital in Chelmsford where they will undergo postmortems.
Essex police indicated that the process of recovering the bodies could take longer than anticipated. BJ Harrington, the force’s chief constable, said: “This is the largest investigation of its kind Essex police has ever had to conduct and it is likely to take some considerable time to come to a conclusion.”
Liu Xiaoming, Chinese ambassador to the UK, tweeted: “The Chinese embassy has sent a team led by the minister-counsellor in charge of consular affairs to Essex, England. They have met with the local police, who said that they are verifying the identity of the 39 deceased.”
GTR said it had leased the trailer on 15 October. It said in a statement: “The directors of Global Trailer Rentals Limited wish to express their deepest sympathies with the family and friends of the people who have so tragically lost their lives. The company was entirely unaware that the trailer was to be used in the manner in which it appears to have been.”
The statement said GTR had supplied information to Essex police, including the identity of the client who rented the trailer, and it would supply data from the tracking device upon request.
A company representative said GTR had no connection with or knowledge of Robinson or the cab that picked up the trailer in Essex.
GTR is a medium-sized trailer rental company that straddles the border. It is based near Castleblayney, County Monaghan, and has administrative support in Newry, County Armagh, plus an office in Dublin.
The Guardian understands that a family-run haulage enterprise on the Irish border rented the trailer. It made no immediate comment.
On its website, GTR says all its trailers are fitted with GPS monitoring and it uses a company called Blue Tree Systems to track the vehicles’ movements. Blue Tree Systems declined to comment.
While British police officers continued to conduct fingertip searches of the Waterglade industrial estate in Thurrock where the bodies were discovered, the Belgian federal prosecutor announced he had opened an inquiry into the deaths, to focus on all parties involved in the transport.
He told local media: “We have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. We don’t even know which road was followed by the truck in Belgium. We don’t know how much time it stayed in Belgian territory. We don’t know if it stopped or not. We don’t know if the people got into the container or not. So we have a lot of questions that we are hoping to find [answers to].”
A senior British ports source told the Guardian that all cargo compartments coming into the UK underwent anti-terrorist screening, but this did not necessarily include measures to detect whether humans were inside a cargo – technology that is widely available at points of departure on the European mainland.
– Yahoo News