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According to the Telegraph, the vehicle was found in the early hours of the morning on Wednesday 23 October 2019 after the ambulance service had called Essex Police to Waterglade Industrial Park, in Grays (Essex, United Kingdom). The vehicle, believed to be from Bulgaria, contained the bodies of the 38 adults and one teenager. The BBC reported that Essex Police arrested the lorry driver, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, on suspicion of murder.
The police believe the vehicle had entered the U.K. via Holyhead in Anglesey on the Saturday prior. The Telegraph reported that Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills has told the BBC that the priority is identifying the victims, though the process will be lengthy. Mills has further appealed for anyone with information to call police on 101.
According to the Independent, Home Secretary Priti Patel advised the Commons that Essex Police will be completing the investigation alongside the National Crime Agency and the Home Office’s Border Force. The BBC further reported that “The National Crime Agency said it had sent officers to assist and identify any “organized crime groups who may have played a part.”
Northern Ireland Policy Manager for the Freight Transport Association Seamus Leheny told the BBC that the vehicle had taken an “orthodox route.” Richard Bunnett, Chief Executive of the Road Haulage Association, further explained that the vehicle appeared to be a refrigerated unit where temperatures could be as low as -25°C, adding that for anyone inside, the conditions would be “absolutely horrendous.”
Andy Larkin, of Bronze Mechanical Handling, a mechanics company located near to where the vehicle was found, had seen the vehicle on Tuesday afternoon and had told the Independent, “What made me notice it is it had those big chrome American exhaust pipes. The curtains in the cab were closed, as though the driver was asleep in there…until about a month ago, there was a refrigeration company there and you used to get loads of lorries from all over Europe parked around there waiting to get in…It wouldn’t have looked out of place when that was open. But it’s unusual for them to be there now. That road is usually empty, apart from cars.” The Independent reported that Andy is reviewing CCTV footage.
Sky News added that a spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria “had no information about the incident prior to [the] U.K. media reports, but confirmed that the lorry had a Bulgarian registration plate,” adding that “Our embassy is in contact with local authorities and is reviewing the case.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, tweeted “I’m appalled by this tragic incident in Essex. I am receiving regular updates and the Home Office will work closely with Essex Police as we establish exactly what has happened. My thoughts are with all those who lost their lives and their loved ones.” A number of MPs have expressed their thoughts, condemning the trade in human trafficking.
Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle-Price proclaimed during Prime Minister’s Questions that “to put 39 people into a locked metal container shows a contempt for human life that is evil. The best thing we can do in memory of those victims is to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.” Johnson responded to Doyle-Price saying “I must say I do share her strong desire now for the perpetrators of that crime, and indeed all those who engage in similar activity – because we know that this trade is going on – all such traders in human beings should be hunted down and brought to justice.”
According to the Independent, Andrew Mitchell, a former Shadow Secretary of State for International Development called upon Patel to “push for a new United Nations convention to tackle the modern equivalent of the slave trade, citing smugglers preying on migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean and Libya, as well as Wednesday’s events.” As reported by the Independent, Patel responded saying “He is right that as the world has changed, conflict has changed…We’re seeing all sorts of desperate situations around the world and there is much more that we can do in terms of leveraging our own voice and our own influence with the big organizations.”
However, Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugee Action has said “this appalling tragedy shows the urgent need for the government to create safe and legal routes to the U.K. for people fleeing war and persecution. The lack of these routes is forcing desperate people to put their lives into the hands of smugglers.” Satbir Singh, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said “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.”
It is evident that further clarity is needed to understand this horrific tragedy in more detail and give justice to the stories of the 39 humans who tragically lost their lives. Further, the incident illuminates the gaps in monitoring the likes of human trafficking and policy failure that is far too often costing the lives of humans, risking their lives to enter safely. This also brings into question how the government is engaging with pressure groups such as Refugee Action, and to what extent the authorities are interacting with these groups to ensure that human life is not at the expense of poor government policy in tackling human trafficking.