British police say 39 bodies found in a truck container

“This is a tragic incident where a large number of people have lost their lives,” Chief Superintendent Andrew Mariner said in a press release. “Our enquiries 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. “We believe the lorry is from Bulgaria and entered the country at Holyhead on Saturday, 19 October, and we are working closely with our partners to investigate.”

Holyhead is a port 400 kilometres away from where the truck was found, in north-west Wales, the closest British port to Dublin in Ireland. “We have arrested the lorry driver in connection with the incident who remains in police custody as our enquiries continue,” Superintendent Mariner said. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was appalled by this tragic incident.

Bulgarian people smugglers have previously killed their “customers” in poorly ventilated trucks. In 2018 four members of a people smuggling gang – one Afghan and three Bulgarians – were jailed in Hungary for letting 71 people suffocate in a lorry abandoned on an Austrian freeway. Officials said the gang was part of a network of more than 15 vehicles moving refugees into Europe.

In that case the migrants, 59 men, eight women and four children including a baby, who had come from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, had been packed into an air-tight truck on a scorching hot day on the Serbian border with Hungary, and they suffocated soon after being packed into the truck. It emerged in court the alleged ringleader had told his colleagues to “let them die” rather than open the doors, and “dump them in a forest” if they did. The deaths in August 2015 were a key factor persuading German chancellor Angela Merkel to open her borders to refugees rather than leaving them in the hands of people smugglers.

Amnesty International said at the time people dying crammed in trucks and ships was “a tragic indictment of Europe’s failures to provide alternative routes” for refugees. A 2018 study of cross-border organised crime, published by the Centre for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, said Bulgaria-based people smugglers had expanded their operations in recent years. “The smuggling units are capable of crossing three or four foreign borders, and the charge per smuggled migrant for delivery to Germany, France, Netherlands or other EU country is around 5000-6000 euros (£8100-£9700),” the report said.

Loading Some networks had “several thousand facilitators” to respond to the hike in demand and the need to find new, unpoliced smuggling paths. However stricter border controls and a change in migration flows saw an ebb in demand after 2016.

The report said drivers were usually at the lowest level of smuggling networks.

Some were recruited for a particular job, and others were hired permanently but rotated through the network, given instructions through “burner” phone cards and voice messenger and encrypted chat applications.

More to come.

Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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