Written by Megan Specia
The bodies of 39 people were discovered in a truck in an industrial park east of London early Wednesday, a scene that local police described as an “absolute tragedy.” But hours after the discovery, much about the case remained a mystery, including the identities of the victims, why they were inside and what led the vehicle to the spot where it was found.
The bodies were discovered in the vehicle at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, in the county of Essex, about 25 miles east of London, the Essex Police said in a statement.
“This is a tragic incident where a large number of people have lost their lives,” Chief Superintendent Andrew Mariner of the Essex Police said. “Our enquiries are ongoing to establish what has happened.”
According to police, they were called to the site shortly before 1:40 a.m.; all 39 people were pronounced dead at the scene. The police have opened a murder investigation.
The driver, a 25-year-old-man from Northern Ireland, has been arrested on suspicion of murder. According to police, it appeared that all but one of the dead, a teenager, were adults, but determining the victims’ identities will be a lengthy process.
The police believe the truck, which is from Bulgaria, entered Britain at Holyhead port in Wales on Saturday, more than 300 miles northwest of where it was discovered on Wednesday.
Vehicles entering Holyhead typically come from Ireland, but what route the truck took remains unclear, as do the nationalities of those inside. Pippa Mills, the deputy chief constable of Essex Police, said police had been called to the scene by the local ambulance service, but she did not know who had alerted the ambulance service.
The police were in the “early stages of what is likely to be a lengthy investigation,” she said at a news conference, and appealed for information from the public.
“This is an absolute tragedy and very sad day for Essex Police and the local community,” Mills said, describing the truck as a “complex scene” that was being examined by experts.
By midday Wednesday, several police officers guarded the cordoned off area on Eastern Avenue, which was sealed off with fences covered with green tarpaulin.
Police officers and forensic specialists were still inspecting the truck and had erected two tents alongside it.
While the circumstances that led to the deaths remained unclear, early signs suggested a people-smuggling endeavor gone tragically wrong. But if the truck were being used to traffic migrants into Britain, the route would be atypical.
A spokesman for Ireland’s national police service said the agency was monitoring the investigation and would “provide every assistance possible.”
Leo Varadkar, the prime minister of Ireland, said while there were reports the truck passed through Ireland, the situation was still unclear.
“It is a real, terrible and human tragedy,” Varadkar told fellow lawmakers. “And we’ll carry out any investigations that are necessary if it’s established that the truck did pass through Ireland.”
“If the lorry came from Bulgaria, getting into Britain via Holyhead is an unorthodox route,” Seamus Leheny, Northern Ireland policy manager for the Freight Transport Association, told the Press Association.
He noted that as security checks have increased at ports like Dover and Calais, some may see it as an easier smuggling route to travel from the French ports of Cherbourg or Roscoff to the Irish port of Rosslare, and then make their way to Britain via Holyhead. But that route, he said, would add an extra day to the journey.
“If there are weaknesses at Irish ports or Irish airports, they will exploit them and use them, because once you’re into Ireland, effectively you’re into the U.K.,” Dave Wood, a former director general of immigration enforcement, told the BBC last year.
A migrant coming from Calais or Dunkirk in northern France, known stopping points, could use a fraudulently obtained European Union passport to fly to Dublin, where migrants describe screening for illegal immigrants as being weaker than at London airports.
A spokesman for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had no immediate information about the situation but was working with British authorities.
There have been a string of tragedies involving migrants and laborers being smuggled across Europe in trucks. In 2015, the decomposing bodies of 71 migrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan were discovered in a truck abandoned on the side of an Austrian highway; four men were later convicted and imprisoned for the deaths.
There have been a series of similar incidents in Austria, and in 2000, 58 Chinese migrants were found suffocated in a truck in Dover, in southeastern England, after crossing from mainland Europe. The driver of that truck, who was Dutch, was eventually sentenced to 14 years in prison for manslaughter and conspiracy to smuggle illegal immigrants.
As details of the grisly discovery in Essex were emerging, the news of the discovery of dozens of bodies drew outrage and horror from many in Britain, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Priti Patel, Britain’s home secretary, she said she was “shocked & saddened by this utterly tragic incident” in a tweet that was quickly met with anger from fellow Britons.
Patel has been a vocal proponent of greater immigration enforcement and has promised to tighten Britain’s migration policies once the country has left the European Union.
Outlining her hard-line approach in a Conservative Party conference this summer, she said she would end free movement “once and for all.”
Satbir Singh, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a British charity focused on immigrants’ rights, said in a statement he was “horrified” by the news and said that responsibility for the situation ultimately fell to the government.
“Nobody should be in any doubt that the ultimate responsibility for these deaths lies with government policy which has deliberately closed down safe and legal routes into Britain,” he said. “We need more than empty expressions of shock and sadness from Priti Patel and Boris Johnson.”
Singh added that Britain needed a commitment by the government to open safe and legal routes for immigrants and “quick decisions on applications from people seeking to make a better life here.”
“People move, they always have and they always will,” he said. “Nobody should have to risk their lives to do so.”
The industrial park is a short drive from the busy Dartford Crossing, where the main freeway encircling London passes under and over the River Thames. A local resident, Paige Wade, described to the Press Association seeing police tape cordoning off the entrance to the industrial park as she drove home from work around 4:15 a.m.
“I knew it was serious because of how many police cars and ambulances were there, but the police had parked their cars across the whole access of the road so you couldn’t see anything,” she said. “There’s always lorries around there as they park up there for the night.”
Britain has long been a destination for migrants, and smugglers have often used the crossings over the English Channel to traffic people into the country. Just days before the discovery, five people were arrested, including four men in Britain, after 13 migrants including a child were discovered in a cattle truck in Calais, en route to Britain.
In that incident, police also searched properties in Grays, and in Worthing, in West Sussex on England’s south coast, seizing around 100,000 pounds in cash — about $130,000.