39 People Found Dead In Lorry, Essex, U.K.

The bodies of 39 people were found in a refrigerated lorry container in Essex, U.K. on 23 October. They appear to have died whilst locked inside the back of the lorry in a case of suspected people smuggling, with this event becoming the worst such tragedy the U.K. has seen in 20 years. Whilst one man has been charged with their manslaughter, many of the victims have not yet been formally identified. However, it is thought all victims – eight women and 31 men – were adults of Vietnamese nationality, with various families coming forward expressing their concern for loved ones who they believe could have been travelling in the lorry. Pham Thi Tra My, 26 – who was believed to be in the lorry – sent panicked messages to her family on the evening of 22 October, with one reading “I am dying, I can’t breathe.”

In reaction to such a heinous event, Chief Superintendent Andrew Mariner of Essex police stated “This is a tragic incident where a large number of people have lost their lives. Our inquiries are ongoing to establish what has happened. We are in the process of identifying the victims; however, I anticipate that this could be a lengthy process.”

Jackie Doyle-Price, MP for Thurrock, commented “People trafficking is a vile and dangerous business. This is a big investigation for Essex police. Let’s hope they bring these murderers to justice.”

Sharon Pickering, Professor of Criminology at Monash University in Australia, made a broader comment that perhaps the U.K. government has tried to ignore following an increase in border security over the past several years: “What happens with border hardening is people take more and more risks. As people take more risks, what you see is more tragedies.”

Expanding on Pickering’s point, many argue that this event shines light on the wider issue of human trafficking occurring throughout the world. It is a stark reminder of the lengths people will go to secure a better life, the exploitative nature of the people smugglers themselves, and the violent consequences of the U.K. and wider Europe’s hostile environment towards migrants. The lack of legal immigration routes into countries such as the U.K. forces desperate migrants or refugees to turn to people traffickers, who use increasingly dangerous methods to evade authorities.

Father Anton Dang Huu Nam, a local priest who has been assisting the victims’ families in Vietnam spoke personally on this issue: “The economic situation, environmental issues, the value of life, poor social security, education, culture, human rights abuses – all these issues make Vietnamese people not want to remain in Vietnam,” said Nam. “They know it’s dangerous but they feel they have to take a gamble for a better life.”

Since 2014 when UN records began, a further five people have been found dead whilst trying to make their way into the U.K. – with far more cases assumed yet unrecorded. Many of the families of the recent Vietnamese victims spoke about how through economic desperation they paid large sums of money to send these family members over to the U.K. in search of a better life and to earn money to provide for their families. These situations are all too familiar in the present vastly unequal global conditions. With border security tightening across Europe, people will not stop attempting to reach these countries, but rather the risks they take will become only greater. Perhaps we must start asking wider questions on equality, justice and immigration policies to ensure we uphold the basic human rights of all individuals in their ability to live a safe, sufficient and secure life.

Rosie Latchford