The 39 people found dead in the back of a truck in England were all believed to be Chinese nationals, Essex Police have said.
It is understood that there were 31 men and eight women discovered in the refrigerated trailer of the truck in Grays, Essex, on Wednesday. One is a young adult woman, previously reported to have been a teenager.
The information comes as police searched three properties in Northern Ireland and officers continue to question a man over the discovery.
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The searches in Northern Ireland on Wednesday night are believed to be linked to the arrest of the driver, named in reports as 25-year-old Mo Robinson, from Portadown.
He remains in custody for questioning by Essex Police on suspicion of murder. Robinson had posted images on social media of the bright red cab, proudly calling it “the Polar Express.”
A statement from the force, which said the case is the largest murder investigation in its history, said: “The lorry has since been removed from the industrial park to allow the next stage of our investigative process to be conducted in peace, and to give the utmost dignity to those within the trailer as we prepare for a coroner’s post-mortem examination.
“Each of the 39 people must undergo a full coroner’s process to establish a cause of death, before we move on to attempting to identify each individual within the trailer. This will be a substantial operation and, at this stage, we cannot estimate how long these procedures will take.”
The force confirmed details about the movements of the truck’s tractor, the front part including the driver’s cab.
The statement said: “Our lines of enquiry are extensive and will be thorough. This means that we might not have all the answers straight away. We do have some key facts, which are:
“The tractor unit of the lorry had entered the country via Holyhead on Sunday 20 October, having traveled over from Dublin.
“The lorry then collected the trailer, which had traveled from Zeebrugge, at the port of Purfleet at around 12.30am on the 23 October. The cab and trailer left the port shortly after 1.05am.
“We were called to Waterglade Industrial Park in Eastern Avenue shortly before 1.40am on Wednesday 23 October by our colleagues in the East of England Ambulance Service to reports that 39 people had been found dead in the trailer of a lorry.”
Councillor Paul Berry said the village of Laurelvale, where the Robinson family live, was in “complete shock.”
Berry, who has been in contact with Robinson’s father several times, said he learned of his son’s arrest through social media.
“He had said he had been getting messages via people on social media on what was happening and at that stage it was not confirmed to him or his family that his son had been arrested,” said the independent representative.
“In the local area the feeling is one of complete shock and hope this is not a true story in terms of his involvement.”
Berry, who knows the father well, said the family were “very well respected” in the area.
“The local community is hoping that he (Mo Robinson) 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 of this.”
He said the family had been left upset by the “unwelcome spotlight” the incident had shone on them.
“It was very distressing for the family as they just felt they were captive in their own home,” he said.
The discovery echoes one in 2000 when the bodies of 58 Chinese illegal immigrants who had paid a criminal gang to be smuggled into the UK were found in a sealed, airless container in Dover. In 2015, a truck was found on an Austrian motorway with the decomposing bodies of 71 people, including a baby girl, inside.
Road Haulage Association chief executive Richard Burnett had earlier described the conditions for anyone inside a refrigerated unit such as this as “absolutely horrendous.”
Temperatures in such units can be as low as -13 degrees if frozen products are being transported, causing humans to “lose their lives pretty quickly,” he said.
He went on: “It’s going to be dark. If the fridge is running it’s going to be incredibly cold.
“The only place to go to the toilet is on board the back of the trailer. You can imagine if they’ve been in there for days then there will be feces, there will be urine.”
Thermal imaging cameras used at ports are unable to detect people in refrigeration trailers and according to AP, such vehicles often move swiftly through Zeegrugge, usually with just a visual check, for the short crossing to England.
Eric Van Duyse, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office, said that Brussels had started an investigation into the incident.
He added: “We have no idea at the moment how long the lorry spent in Belgium, it could be hours or days, we just don’t know.”
The incident follows warnings from the National Crime Agency (NCA) and the Border Force of the increased risk of people-smuggling via Belgium.
An NCA assessment report on serious and organised crime last year said there was a “greater focus” on rising smuggler numbers in Belgium after the closure of the Dunkirk migrant camp in 2017.
A Border Force assessment in 2016 highlighted Zeebrugge as being among “key ports of embarkation for clandestine arrival.”
Speaking on Wednesday afternoon, Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills said the lorry and the container were being moved to nearby Tilbury Docks so the bodies can be recovered while preserving the dignity of the victims.
“We are yet to identify them and must manage this sensitively with their families,” she added.
The prime minister said the perpetrators of the crime “should be hunted down”, while local MP Jackie Doyle-Price said the people smugglers responsible must be caught.
Police have said tracking route used “will be a key line of inquiry.”
The Bulgarian ministry of foreign affairs said the truck was registered in Varna in Bulgaria “under the name of a company owned by an Irish citizen.”
Police originally thought the truck had traveled to the UK through Holyhead in north Wales on October 19 but later revealed that the trailer had come directly from the Continent.
A freight ferry service runs from Zeebrugge to Purfleet.
Security checks for people smuggling are believed to be less stringent at both ports than at Calais and Dover.
The discovery comes as the NCA said the number of migrants being smuggled into the UK in containers and trucks has risen in the last year.