Thirty-nine bodies were found in a refrigerated truck in Grays, Essex, about 25 miles outside of London, in the early morning on October 23. The Essex police confirmed that eight of the deceased were female, and 31 were male. Thirty-eight victims were adults, while one body was believed to be a young adult woman. According to a statement from the Essex Police department, they were likely victims of human trafficking or smugglings.
The continuing investigation into the deaths
On October 24, the Essex Police confirmed the traveled routes of the truck. Its tractor unit left Dublin, Ireland, and entered the United Kingdom via Holyhead on October 20. The trailer had traveled from Zeebrugge to the port of Purfleet, where the tractor collected it and left at 1:05 on October 23. The bodies were found in the truck shortly after.
The Essex police department has launched an investigation into the deaths and alleged human trafficking ring. So far, they have made five arrests and issued warrants for two others.
The truck driver, whom the Essex Police identified as Maurice Robinson, 25, was arrested following the discovery. On October 28, he was charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, and money laundering. The Essex Echo reported that he was not asked to enter a plea and did not request release on bail.
On October 25, three others were also arrested – Joanna and Thomas Maher, a married couple, both 38, from Warrington, England, and another man who has not been named, 46, from Northern Ireland. The three were arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people, although it is unclear how they are linked to the 39 deaths. All three of them were released on bail on October 28.
On October 26, Irish police officials arrested a 23-year-old truck driver at Dublin Port. The Belgian police said he had transported the refrigerated container from Ireland to Belgium before the bodies were found on its return journey to the United Kingdom. The Essex police confirmed that he was a person of interest in the murder investigation but did not provide further details.
On October 29, the Essex Police identified two other suspects – brothers Ronan Hughes, 40 and Christopher, 34 from Armagh, Northern Ireland. They are wanted on suspicion of manslaughter and human trafficking.
Vietnamese families seek answers
Essex Police initially claimed that all 39 victims were Chinese nationals, but later said that “it is now a developing picture.” On November 1, the Essex police announced that they now believed all victims were Vietnamese nationals.
Up to 14 families in Vietnam have reported missing relatives, whom they fear to be among the victims, according to state-run news outlet Vietnam Plus.
After the news from Essex, a screenshot of text messages that are believed to be a victim’s last words to her parents spread rapidly on Facebook in Vietnam. Hoa Nghiem, the account who shared the texts, is a coordinator with Hanoi’s Human Rights Space. She said that a family from Ha Tinh approached her for help to find news about their daughter, Pham Thi Tra My, 26, whom they fear to be one of the victims.
The text said: “I’m sorry, dad and mom. The way I went overseas was not successful. Mom, I love dad and you so much. I’m dying because I can’t breathe. Nghen Village, Can Loc District, Ha Tinh Province, Vietnam. Mom, I am so sorry, mom.”
The text messages were sent at 4.28 a.m. on October 23, Vietnam time (10.28 p.m. on October 22, UK time). At this time, the trailer was still in transit to Purfleet port, UK.
Pham left for the UK on October 3, traveling via China and France. Her family has not heard from her since the text and said that they paid $38 000 to smugglers to get her to the UK.
Since then, more Vietnamese families have spoken out, believing that their family members are among the dead. They have even held memorial services and erected family altars to remember them.
CNN reported that the Vietnamese embassy in London has been working with British authorities to aid in identifying the victims.
Vietnamese state-run news outlet Chinh Phu also reported that British authorities had sent files on four victims to the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security to seek help in establishing their identities. According to their report, Vietnamese local authorities have taken hair and nail samples from families who have reported missing relatives for DNA verification.
According to AP news, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that China had asked the UK to provide more information on the victim’s identities. He also asserted that the claims of victims having Chinese passports were “speculation.”
The British police have repeatedly cautioned that the formal identification of the victims and their nationalities would require thorough investigation, and answers will take time.
British officials have called the Essex incident one of the country’s deadliest cases of human smuggling. In 2000, 58 Chinese were found dead in a tomato truck at the port of Dover. They had traveled to Britain from Zeebrugge.
According to Britain’s National Crime Agency, citizens of Vietnam and China are often smuggled illegally into the UK for labor exploitation. The 2018 UK Annual Report on Modern Slavery found that Vietnam and China were two of the top countries of origin of potential modern slavery and human trafficking victims in the UK.
On October 28, UK Prime Minister and Home Secretary Priti Patel traveled to Essex to share their condolences.
“The whole nation and indeed the world has been shocked by this tragedy and the cruelty of the fate that has been suffered by innocent people who were hoping for a better life in this country,” Johnson wrote in the condolence book. “We mourn those who lost their lives. Our thoughts are with their families far away. In condemning the callousness of those responsible for this crime, we in the government of the United Kingdom resolve to do everything in our power to bring the perpetrators to justice.”