Vietnamese families fear relatives among Essex lorry dead

Two Vietnamese families say they fear their relatives are among the 39 people found dead in a lorry in Essex.

    Police are seen at the scene where bodies were discovered in a lorry container, in Grays, Essex [Hannah McKay/Reuters]
    Police are seen at the scene where bodies were discovered in a lorry container, in Grays, Essex [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

    British police arrested on Friday a fourth person in connection with the deaths of 39 people found in the back of a truck near London, amid signs that some of the dead may be Vietnamese.

    As forensic experts began the process of identifying the victims, at least two Vietnamese families said they fear their relatives are among the victims.

    A 26-year-old Vietnamese woman Pham Thi Tra My sent a text message to her mother saying she could not breathe at about the time the truck container was en route from Belgium to the United Kingdom.

    "I'm sorry Mom. My path to abroad doesn't succeed. Mom, I love you so much! I'm dying bcoz I can't breathe," she said in the message, according to her brother Pham Manh Cuong.

    Human Rights Space, a civic network based in Vietnam, said Tra My had gone to China and was planning to reach England via France.

    Another Vietnamese man, Nguyen Dinh Gia, said his son told him two weeks ago he planned to travel to Britain from France, where he had been living illegally since 2018.    

    His 20-year-old son Nguyen Dinh Luong said he would pay 11,000 pounds ($14,000) for the journey.  

    But Gia got a call several days ago from a Vietnamese man saying, "please have some sympathy, something unexpected happened", he told AFP news agency.  

    "I fell to the ground when I heard that," Gia said. "It seemed that he was in the truck with the accident, all of them dead."

    He has asked Vietnamese officials to help identify his son, who was believed to be looking for work in a nail salon in the UK.

    The Vietnamese embassy in London said families from the Southeast Asian country had got in touch about missing relatives, and said it was working closely with British police. VietHome, an organisation for the Vietnamese community in Britain, said it had received news from 10 families that their relatives were missing.

    Fourth suspect arrested

    Police have said they believe the dead were Chinese but Beijing said the nationalities had not yet been confirmed.

    "We owe it to those who have died to get this investigation right and speculation is not helpful," Essex police's deputy chief constable Pippa Mills told reporters. "It may in fact hinder our investigation and its progress." 

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    She said they would not give any more details about the identities or nationalities of the victims until the formal identification process was complete.

    Her officers were still questioning the 25-year-old truck driver on suspicion of murder following the discovery of the bodies in the back of his truck.

    He has not been formally identified but a source familiar with the investigation named him as Mo Robinson from the Portadown area of Northern Ireland.

    On Friday, police also arrested a man and a woman, both aged 38, in Warrington, northwest England, and a 48-year-old man from Northern Ireland at London's Stansted Airport. They are suspected of conspiracy to traffic people and manslaughter.

    The victims - 31 men and eight women - are being moved to a hospital mortuary from a secure location at docks near the industrial estate in Grays about 30km (18.5 miles) east of London where the bodies were found.

    Post-mortem examinations were beginning to determine how exactly they died while the lengthy process of identifying the deceased was under way.

    The tragedy recalls the deaths of 58 Chinese migrants who suffocated in a truck in Dover, England, in 2000 after a perilous, months-long journey from China's southern Fujian province.

    "We hope that the British side can as soon as possible confirm and verify the identities of the victims, ascertain what happened and severely punish criminals involved in the case," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing.

    The police investigation is focused on the movement of the trailer prior to its arrival at Purfleet docks near Grays little more than an hour before the bodies were found, and on who was behind the suspected human trafficking.

    Irish company Global Trailer Rentals said it owned the trailer and had rented it out on October 15. The firm said it was unaware of what it was to be used for.

    The refrigeration unit had travelled to Britain from Zeebrugge in Belgium and the town's chairman, Dirk de Fauw, said he believed the victims died in the trailer before it arrived in the Belgian port.

    The Times newspaper reported that GPS data showed the container had arrived at the Belgian port at 2.49pm local time (12:49 GMT) on Tuesday before later making the 10-hour sea crossing to Britain.

    Police said the cab unit of the truck was driven over from Dublin on Sunday, crossing the Irish Sea by ship and entering Britain in North Wales. It picked up the trailer in Purfleet shortly after midnight on Wednesday.

    Figures last year from the UK's National Crime Agency, which targets serious and organised crime, showed Vietnamese nationals were the third most commonly reported victims of modern slavery or trafficking in Britain, although it did not have statistics about those entering the country illegally.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies