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Dead Chinese migrants ‘could have been smuggled by Snakehead gang’

Post-mortem examinations are due to be carried out on the 39 bodies.

The container lorry where 39 people were found dead inside leaves Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays (Aaron Chown/PA)
The container lorry where 39 people were found dead inside leaves Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays (Aaron Chown/PA)

By PA Reporters

The 39 people found dead in a lorry in Essex could have been trafficked by a Chinese “Snakehead” gang, it has been claimed.

An international investigation is under way as post-mortem examinations are due to begin on the bodies found in a refrigerated trailer in Grays in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Detectives have been granted more time to question the driver of the truck, named locally as 25-year-old Mo Robinson, from Northern Ireland, who has been arrested on suspicion of murder.

Police have not confirmed whether he raised the alarm after finding the eight women and 31 men, who are all believed to be Chinese nationals, while his supporters have set up petitions online calling for his release.

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It is thought police will remain at the scene for several days (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

People living close to Purfleet – the port where the container entered the UK – said illegal migrants were a familiar sight.

“It’s a magnet for illegals,” said Janet Lilley, 61. “People would come strolling out of the docks, get in the vans and that’s it, they drive off.”

Lee Tubby, 45, who lives opposite the port, said he has seen people “climbing out the top and out the back” of lorries and cutting the plastic roof covering to climb through.

“We’ve had people just come out of the port knocking on the door asking for shoes, asking for water,” he said.

It is not yet known when the victims entered the sealed refrigerated trailer, where temperatures can be as low as -25C, or the exact route it travelled.

Mike Gradwell, a former Lancashire Police detective superintendent who worked on the probe into the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy in which 23 Chinese illegal immigrants drowned, told BBC Breakfast that those inside could have been trafficked by a Snakehead gang.

“These are criminal travel agents really – you go to a Snakehead to say you want to be trafficked to an economic opportunity and usually you’ll borrow quite a significant amount of money,” he said.

Belgian officials said the trailer arrived at Zeebrugge at 2.49pm on Tuesday and left the port the same day on route to Purfleet.

Joachim Coens, chief executive of Zeebrugge port, said it was unlikely people were loaded into the container at the Belgian site, while Mayor Dirk De Fauw, who is also the chairman of the port, said it was “virtually impossible” the victims went into the trailer at the Belgian border.

The trailer arrived at Purfleet at around 12.30am on Wednesday, and the front section to which it was attached, known as the tractor, came from Northern Ireland via Holyhead in North Wales on Sunday.

The lorry and trailer left the port at Purfleet shortly after 1.05am, and officers were called to the Waterglade Industrial Park on Eastern Avenue in Grays at 1.40am.

On Thursday evening, the first 11 bodies were moved by a private ambulance with a police escort from the port of Tilbury to Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford.

Irish company Global Trailer Rentals Ltd (GTR) confirmed it owned the refrigerated part of the lorry and a spokesman said the company was “shellshocked” and “gutted” by the news.

The firm said the trailer had been leased on October 15 from its rentals yard in Co Monaghan, in the Republic of Ireland, at a rate of 275 euro (£237) a week.

It said it provided police with information about the person and company that leased the trailer, as well as offering to make tracking data available.

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Floral tributes left on Eastern Avenue, Grays (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Irish police are conducting follow-up inquiries in relation to the registrations and movements of the refrigerated container and the Irish-owned truck.

Three addresses have been searched in Northern Ireland as part of the probe.

China has called for joint efforts to counter human smuggling, while vigils have been held in London and Belfast to pay tribute to the victims.

Repeated warnings of the rising threat of people-smuggling via Belgium were issued by British authorities in the past three years.

The Home Office was advised in a 2016 report to “prioritise” Border Force visits to smaller east coast ports to deter criminals from using them.

The report, by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, said coverage of smaller ports, harbours and marinas along the east coast was “poor” and that officers had not visited 27 of the 62 smaller east coast ports in the 15 months leading up to June 2016.

Chancellor Sajid Javid was asked on the Today programme if he was aware of staffing problems at east coast ports, in particular Purfleet, when he was home secretary.

“I couldn’t tell you about staffing particularly at Purfleet, I don’t have that detail,” he said.

“But I can tell you that, during the last year, certainly the year that I was at the Home Office, there was a significant increase in the number of Border Force officers.”

Shadow home secretary Dianne Abbot told BBC News: “First of all, there appears to be an issue with security at these smaller east coast ports and we need to look at it, because clearly checks are much better now at Dover and the bigger ports, it may be that people traffickers are more likely to use these smaller east coast ports.”

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