Belfast Telegraph

Village's horror at being thrust back into spotlight 12 years after death of teenagers

In TV interviews local independent councillor Paul Berry summed up the shock in Laurelvale and in the Robinson family, whom he knows
In TV interviews local independent councillor Paul Berry summed up the shock in Laurelvale and in the Robinson family, whom he knows
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Residents of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it village of Laurelvale in the rural heart of Co Armagh thought their nightmare days in the media spotlight were behind them. Long ago.

They never imagined that, 12 years after the suicides of three Laurelvale teenagers in the space of a month made national headlines, their village would be the focus of global attention.

But the dreadful deaths of 39 Chinese nationals whose bodies were found in a refrigerated trailer in Essex have plunged Laurelvale on to the front pages of newspapers as well as TV news bulletins across the globe.

And that's because Mo Robinson, the lorry driver who was arrested on suspicion of murder, is from Laurelvale, where friends and family have been stunned to find his pictures, mostly from his Facebook pages, accompanying articles, some of which they've complained have ignored the 'innocent until proven guilty' principles.

Others took to social media to defend Mo Robinson and claim that he's an unwitting pawn in a tragedy they blame on international people trafficking gangs.

The lorry driver's home, and another house belonging to relatives have also been seen in news coverage as police raided them and a third property.

In TV interviews local independent councillor Paul Berry summed up the shock in Laurelvale and in the Robinson family, whom he knows.

"The local community is hoping that he 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," he said.

Investigations into the tragedy of the victims, 31 men and eight women, have spread around the world as officers try to piece together the migrants' journey that started in hope but ended in hellish deaths, trapped in the back of an airtight trailer.

Police in Essex said conditions inside were "absolutely horrendous" and the sights that the emergency services found in the trailer were almost unimaginable.

But that didn't stop thousands of people imagining the horror that must have unfolded as the hapless stowaways watched each other succumbing to the cold - possibly minus 25 degrees - knowing that they had no chance of survival in their terrifying tomb.

Police were at first under the impression that the trailer had come from Bulgaria, where it was registered in the city of Varna, according to the country's foreign affairs ministry, under the name of a company owned by an Irishwoman.

Reports said the firm had an office address in Dublin, but was registered in Northern Ireland.

Late yesterday afternoon an Irish company, Global Trailer Rentals, said it owned the container and rented it out 10 days ago.

The company, based in Dublin, said the trailer was leased from a yard in Monaghan at a rate of €275 a week.

Further enquiries by the police in England established the trailer had arrived at Purfleet on the River Thames from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, a name forever associated with a ferry disaster which claimed 193 lives in 1987.

The movements of the cab - the tractor unit - driven by Mo Robinson were quickly confirmed by police and port authorities, who said it had entered Britain through Holyhead in Wales from Dublin.

The cab, with the trailer by now linked up behind it, left Purfleet at 01.05am on Wednesday and drove to an industrial park where it arrived 25 minutes later.

Police sources briefed a number of newspapers on Wednesday that it was unlikely that he knew in advance that the migrants were on board.

However, yesterday police in Essex sought, and were granted, an extra 24 hours to question Mo Robinson, whose relatives flew to England from Northern Ireland to support him.

As the police probe continued, so too did the painstaking efforts to identify the 39 victims whose bodies were taken away for post mortems.

Police warned that the identification procedures, and the hunt to pinpoint how the tragedy unfolded, would not be easy, making it the biggest murder inquiry in the history of the Essex police force.

Questions have been asked about the passage of the trailer into the UK. But the Immigration Service has all but admitted that the job of checking containers by looking inside them is impossible because there are so many lorries coming into the UK every day.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has also been involved in the current investigations, with its focus on tracking down any organised crime groups which might have been involved in people trafficking.

The NCA warned last year that Belgium was now in the front line of human smuggling as tough new security measures were introduced elsewhere en route to Britain.

Police across Europe are trying to establish where the 39 victims were put into the container: in Zeebrugge, or somewhere before the Belgian port.

The mayor of Zeebrugge, Dirk De fauw, said it was "virtually impossible" that the migrants had climbed into the container in his town.

It was, he added, highly unlikely that nobody would have noticed so much activity from so many people.

He said trailers were systematically checked for external signs of damage before being sealed and they were filmed constantly until they reached their ferries.

However, the scale of the problem has been highlighted by port authorities in Zeebrugge, who revealed that no fewer than 4,000 containers travel from there to Britain every day.

Mayor De fauw estimated that at least 50 migrants try to make the journey from Zeebrugge to UK ports every month. And it's been suggested that more people have been trying to escape into the UK before Brexit brings even tighter security in its wake.

The latest tragedy has revived memories of a similar disaster 19 years ago when 58 Chinese immigrants were found suffocated in a lorry in Dover after it crossed the Channel, again from Zeebrugge.

Two stowaways survived and their stories only served to underline what the most recent migrants must have gone through.

They said they were banging in desperation on the sides of the container as the air was running out.

But despite that shocking incident, frantic migrants haven't been deterred from trying to make a new life in the UK.

Asked yesterday how the human tide could be stemmed, a spokesman for an organisation trying to help migrants said: "That's like asking how to stop global hunger."

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