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Man from Northern Ireland arrested as 39 bodies found in Essex lorry container

 Police activity at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, after 39 bodies were found inside a lorry container on the industrial estate. Picture by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

A man from Northern Ireland has been arrested on suspicion of murder after 39 bodies were found in a lorry container on an industrial estate in England.

The victims, found at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex included one teenager, police said.

They confirmed the 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, who was driving the lorry, has been arrested.

The lorry is from Bulgaria and at 4pm Essex Police confirmed that the lorry and container had entered Britain via Zeebrugge in Belgium and docked in the Thurrock area. It had originally been thought the vehicle arrived in Holyhead in Wales, possibly via Dublin in the Republic of Ireland. 

"The tractor unit of the lorry is believed to have originated in Northern Ireland," police added in their 4pm update.

"We believe the lorry and trailer left the port shortly after 1.05am."

By 5pm the lorry had left the industrial unit under police escort and made its way to Tilbury Docks.

Essex Police Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills said the dignity of the 39 victims would be preserved as their remains were recovered from the vehicle.

"This matter has attracted national and international interest and it is absolutely imperative that the operation is conducted with the utmost respect for the 39 people who have lost their lives," she said.

"The lorry and the trailer will be moved to a secure location, 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."

Road Haulage Association chief executive Richard Burnett told PA the container appeared to be a refrigerated unit and described conditions for anyone inside as "absolutely horrendous".

Temperatures in such units can be as low as -25C if frozen products are being transported, causing humans to "lose their lives pretty quickly", he said.

Eric Van Duyse, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor's office, said: "The prosecutor has this afternoon launched an investigation."

He said that the investigation would seek to establish whether the trailer travelled through Belgium, adding: "It seems that the lorry has been shipped from the port of Zeebrugge."

"These two elements have to be checked out, for there to be an inquiry, because we have just had information to say that this has happened but the inquiry has to establish whether this has happened or not.

"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.

"We have got a good relationship with the justice and police office of Great Britain ... but we have not a lot of information at this moment."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bulgaria said: "The Scania truck was registered in Varna (on the east coast of Bulgaria) under the name of a company owned by an Irish citizen."

Earlier today Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said any necessary investigations would be undertaken if it was established the lorry had passed through the Republic of Ireland.

"The information that we have so far this morning is very sketchy but there are some reports that the truck may have passed through Ireland at some point," he told the Dáil.

"So, obviously we are going to need to get more information and carry out any necessary investigations that may be required.

"But I think everyone's thoughts in this House this morning are with those who are dead, those who have passed on and their families.

"It is a real terrible and human tragedy, and we will carry out any investigations that are necessary if it's established that the truck did pass through Ireland."

Read more: Essex police working to identifty where 39 lorry death victims are from and their identities

Before the lorry's entry point was confirmed, it was believed it had reached Britain via Holyhead in Wales.

Seamus Leheny, Northern Ireland policy manager for the Freight Transport Association (FTA), told PA: "There is a direct route to Holyhead from Dublin.

"If the lorry came from Bulgaria, getting into Britain via Holyhead is an unorthodox route.

"People have been saying that security and checks have been increased at places like Dover and Calais, so it might be seen as an easier way to get in by going from Cherbourg or Roscoff, over to Rosslare, then up the road to Dublin.

"It's a long way around and it'll add an extra day to the journey."

Road Haulage Association chief executive Richard Burnett said the lorry could have travelled on a ferry from Cherbourg, France, to Rosslare in the Republic, before driving to Dublin and taking another ferry to Holyhead, North Wales and then reaching Kent by road.

He told PA: "It's highly unlikely that if this vehicle has come from Europe that it's been physically checked.

"Because of the migrant issue at Dover and Calais, you've got far more checks that are taking place there. You've got heartbeat monitors, you've got dogs, you've got CO2. Those checks are done as you drive through.

"Cherbourg, because it's a low volume port, you probably won't have the same security measures that they have in Coquelles, Calais, for the high number of vehicles that are stepping through there and that's been one of the main migrant routes historically.

"If this is somebody trying to smuggle a significant number of people through then maybe Cherbourg has been picked because it's a little easier to get through."

Mr Burnett told PA the container appeared to be a refrigerated unit and described conditions for anyone inside as "absolutely horrendous".

Temperatures in such units can be as low as -25C 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 faeces, there will be urine."

Aerial footage from the scene shows forensic officers walking in and out of the lorry which is parked on Eastern Avenue opposite Pirtek and Hydraquip.

Two tents have been erected - one in front of the lorry and one behind it with police vehicles on either side.

Police have taped off the area as they investigate.

Read more: Essex police working to identifty where 39 lorry death victims are from and their identities

A man from Northern Ireland has been arrested after 39 bodies were found inside a lorry container in an Essex industrial estate. Picture by Aaron Chown/PA Wire

The National Crime Agency (NCA) said: "We are aware of this tragic incident which is now the subject of a murder investigation being led by Essex Police and we have deployed NCA officers to assist.

"We are working with partners including Essex Police and Immigration Enforcement to provide specialist support to urgently identify and take action against any organised crime groups who might have played a role in causing these deaths."

British prime minister Boris Johnson has said he is "appalled" and that his thoughts are with those who lost their lives. 

Glen Freeland, from GSF Car Parts which is close to where the bodies were found, said staff could not access the shop on Eastern Avenue on Wednesday morning.

"The manager went to get into work this morning and it was cordoned off and we've been moved to a different area," Mr Freeland said.

"All we know is they found the bodies in the back of a lorry.

"It was a bit of a shock but we're not 100 per cent sure of what's happened."

Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Society, said "this tragedy it highlights the danger of migrant gangs people-smuggling on lorries". 

Speaking in the House of Commons today, British home secretary Priti Patel said: "From what police have been able to ascertain so far is that the vehicle is believed to be from Bulgaria and entered the country at Holyhead, North Wales, one of the main port or ferries from Ireland on the 19th of October.

"Essex police have now launched a murder investigation.

"A 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland has been arrested on suspicion of murder. He remains in police custody as enquires continue.

"I think the whole house will agree that this is a truly shocking incident.

"My thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones at this utterly terrible time.

"While the nationalities of the victims are not yet known, I have asked my officials to work closely with the investigation, providing all assistance we can in these horrific circumstances."

Ms Patel continued: "This is on top of the joint working that is taking place already between the police, border force, immigration enforcement, the National Crime Agency and other law enforcement agencies to ascertain exactly how this incident occurred.

"Day in, day out, they work tirelessly to secure our borders against a wide range of threats, including people trafficking, and we will continue to work with international partners to keep people safe.

"Mr Speaker, this is a tragic loss of life and I, and every one of my team, will continue to update the house as more facts on this more dreadful incident become known."

A spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs in Bulgaria told PA: "Our embassy in London is in contact with the British authorities to clarify the case involving the 39 people found dead in a truck in Essex.

"The British police have been contacted and a representative of our embassy has also had a meeting at the Foreign Office in London.

"At present, it has not yet been confirmed whether the truck has a Bulgarian registration.

"There is also no indication of the nationality of the human bodies found in the truck.

"British police have warned that the identification of the bodies will take a long time."

Stena Line Ports, which operates Holyhead Port in North Wales, said it was ready to provide "assistance" to police following the discovery of the bodies.

In a statement, Stena Line Ports said: "We are aware of the devastating situation that has come to light this morning regarding a lorry that was located in Essex.

"At this time, the Essex Police are investigating and in control of the incident.

"Our thoughts are with the families of those whom have lost their lives. We are ready and available to provide any assistance that is required to support the investigation."

Verona Murphy, president of the Irish Road Haulage Association, says drivers and staff in the industry are aghast at the news from Essex.

"I'm flabbergasted and devastated, 39 people are dead within this industry for whatever reason, is just devastating," she said.

"Devastating for their families, and although we have very little information on this, from our point of view we will be advising our drivers for the need for vigilance, for carrying out their own checks.

"We don't know if this is orchestrated behaviour but we are determined to be sure that all our members are following guidelines to avoid anything of this nature, like protecting themselves and equipment, but most of all mindful of the protection of human life.

"There is total devastation among the industry that this has happened and no-one would treat this with complacency."

Ms Murphy added that protection of human life should be the number one priority for all drivers.

"We don't condone illegal immigration, assuming that's what this is, if this is the case it's selfish and greedy without any concern for those who wish to cross borders," she said.

"We've never had incidents where smugglers have offered any of our drivers money but we've had a number of incidents where drivers were subject to threats and have reported that.

"What happens out there is a very organised industry and we would say it's hazardous for everyone involved.

"Under UK Border Force rules, the greatest of precaution is the protection of human life and their own, (the drivers), these are very vulnerable and desperate people.

"Very few of our drivers have ever been involved or prosecuted in the illegal trafficking of humans, I'm not aware of any, we've had someone who was a victim of infiltration.

"However, if you can prove you performed your checks, you might just receive a fine.

"We're in total shock but what's sad is the world has become desensitised to this kind of thing."

hadow home secretary Diane Abbott: "Any death under these circumstances is truly appalling. The fact there have been 39 reported deaths in this incident is a terrible tragedy. One of the worst of its kind."

She added: "These 39 poor unfortunate people are the victims in this. They are preyed upon by the greedy, the unscrupulous and people who simply have a wilful disregard for the lives of others.

"But we should take account of the wider context. Nobody leaves their homes on a journey like this, with so much risk and fear, on a whim. They often do it because they are actually desperate."

She called for an assurance that "vital" co-operation on preventing people trafficking with the EU27 will not become "imperilled" when the UK leaves the EU. She said there should be "safe and legal routes" for "genuine" refugees to get to the UK.

Ms Patel said there would always be "international co-operation" and collaboration with EU countries and others around the world to prevent illegal human trafficking.

She said the UK has to "do the right thing as a country" to uphold the "right kind of values". She said this means making sure people fleeing war zones and conflicts are given asylum "in the right way".

Satbir Singh, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: "We are horrified by the news of the deaths of 39 people in horrendous circumstances.

"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.

"We need more than empty expressions of shock and sadness from Priti Patel and Boris Johnson, we need a commitment to opening safe and legal routes to the UK, and quick decisions on applications from people seeking to make a better life here.

"People move, they always have and they always will. Nobody should have to risk their lives to do so."

Paige Wade was driving past the industrial park at 4.15am on the way home from work.

She told the PA news agency: "I honestly didn't see much, I had just finished work while driving up Motherwell Way and all you could see was blue flashing lights, as I was driving past there was police tape to cordon off the start of eastern avenue.

"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.

"There's always lorries around there as they park up there for the night, I couldn't say whether I did or didn't see the actual lorry in question."

A restaurant worker in the industrial estate, who did not want to be named, said the area was cordoned off by police on Wednesday morning.

"There's a lot of police and forensics," the Big Blue Food Bus employee told the PA news agency.

"We've just seen what has been said online. It's awful.

"We thought maybe someone had broken into a lorry, but it's just awful."

DUP leader Arlene Foster tweeted that she was "thinking of those who have impacted and their families during such a distressing time".

The discovery is not the worst of its kind in Britain.

The bodies of 58 Chinese people were found in a container at Dover, Kent, in 2000.

Seven men were jailed by a Dutch court for their role in the human smuggling operation that led to the young people suffocating and the Dutch lorry driver was jailed for 14 years.

Essex Police have set up a casualty bureau for people to call if they are concerned about relatives following the incident.

The casualty bureau numbers are 0800 056 0944 for callers living in the UK, or 0207 158 0010 for people dialling from outside the UK, the force said.

 

Police have closed the area around the industrial estate in Essex. Picture by Google Maps 

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