The 39 people found dead in a container truck near an English port were Chinese citizens, British police confirmed Thursday when they pressured to investigate one of the most lethal cases of smuggling people in the country.
Essex police said 31 men and eight women were found dead in the truck early Wednesday at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, a city 40 kilometers east of London. The force says that a victim who was previously thought to be a teenager was a young adult woman.
The 25-year-old truck driver, originally from Northern Ireland, is being questioned on suspicion of attempted murder, but has not been charged. Northern Ireland police have searched three properties while seeking to rebuild the truck trip and the victims.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China published a statement in its social media account that said employees of the Chinese embassy in the United Kingdom were heading to the crime scene to assist in the investigation.
Editorial: Human trafficking
Britain remains an attractive destination for immigrants, even when the United Kingdom is negotiating its divorce from the European Union. Upon learning of the deaths, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised Wednesday in Parliament that human traffickers would be prosecuted throughout the law.
The tragedy recalls the death of 58 people in 2000 in a truck in Dover, England, who had embarked on a dangerous journey of several months from Fujian province in southern China, and were discovered kept with a load of tomatoes after a ferry ride from Zeebrugge, the same Belgian port used in the last tragedy.
In February 2004, 21 Chinese immigrants also from Fujian who worked as cockpit collectors drowned when they were trapped by treacherous tides in Morecambe Bay in northwestern England.
Groups of migrants have landed repeatedly on the English coast using small boats for the risky crossing of the Canal, and migrants are sometimes found in the trunks of cars that disembark from the huge ferries that link France and England.
But Wednesday's macabre find in an industrial park was a reminder that criminal gangs are still benefiting from large-scale traffic.
The truck and the trailer with the people inside apparently made separate trips before ending up in the industrial park. British police said they believe the container went from the port of Zeebrugge to Purfleet, England, where Wednesday morning arrived.
The UK authorities have warned for several years that human traffickers resort to Dutch and Belgian ports due to the increased safety on the busiest trade route between Calais in France and Dover in England.
The National Crime Agency of Great Britain warned in 2016 that smuggling people using containers on ferries was "the threat of organized immigration crime of highest priority." The same year, the United Kingdom Border Force identified Zeebrugge and the Hook of Holland in the Netherlands as key launch points for people traffic to Britain.