Police said on Thursday that the 39 people found dead in a truck trailer in Essex were Chinese nationals, as they stepped up one of the UK’s biggest mass-murder investigations.
Raids were carried out overnight at three properties in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in connection with the probe, Essex police confirmed, as they were given a further 24 hours to question the driver of the lorry. The 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland was arrested at the scene on suspicion of murder in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
The Chinese embassy in London is working with the police to establish the identity of the bodies of the 31 men and eight women. “The staff of the Chinese embassy in the UK are driving to the scene to verify the situation,” China’s foreign ministry posted in a message on Weibo, the instant messaging service,
As efforts continued to establish the identity of the victims, the UK authorities were working with their counterparts in Belgium, Bulgaria and the Republic of Ireland to try to establish the route the trailer had taken before arriving in the UK.
Essex Police slightly modified its account of the vehicle’s movements, revealing that the tractor unit that was towing the trailer entered the UK on Sunday at the port of Holyhead, north Wales, off a ferry from Dublin. The force had previously said the vehicle, which is registered in Bulgaria, entered the UK on Saturday.
The trailer arrived separately at the ferry terminal at Purfleet, in Essex, from Zeebrugge, in Belgium. The tractor unit picked the trailer up from the dockside and left the port at 1.05am on Wednesday. The port is about a mile from where the bodies were discovered, on the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays.
The National Crime Agency, which investigates organised crime, is working with the police and immigration officials to establish who might be behind the apparent people-smuggling operation.
Eric Van Duyse, a spokesman for the Belgian prosecutor, said authorities in the country had no information about the trailer’s movements. “We don’t even know which road was followed by the truck in Belgium,” he said.
Bulgarian authorities said on Wednesday that the tractor unit was registered in the city of Varna to a company owned by an Irish citizen, according to Reuters.
“Our work continues today, and for the foreseeable future, to be focused on providing the victims and their loved ones with an investigation that is filled with dignity, compassion and respect for those who have died,” Essex Police said. “Our lines of inquiry are extensive and will be thorough.”
The Chinese embassy in London wrote on Twitter that it had read “with heavy heart” the reports about the deaths. “We are in close contact with the British police to seek clarification and confirmation of the relevant reports,” it said.
The trailer has been taken to a warehouse at the Port of Tilbury, where work to remove the bodies and identify those concerned is being undertaken.
The incident is the worst mass death of migrants in the UK since 2000 when 58 people, also Chinese nationals, were found dead in the back of a truck near Dover.
There has been speculation that people smugglers’ attention has shifted to less busy ports such as Purfleet after a substantial tightening of security measures at Dover and other main gateways into the UK.
Additional reporting by Ryan McMorrow in Beijing and agencies