Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

EXCLUSIVE: First pictures of haulage boss and his wife arrested on 39 counts of manslaughter over Essex death truck tragedy - after it emerged she was lorry's previous owner

  • Up to 12 police have raided the Warrington home and hair salon of Joanna Maher, 38, and husband Thomas,38
  • Mrs Maher told MailOnline yesterday: 'It's the cab - my name was down as owning it. We sold it 13 months ago'
  • Detectives also about to decide whether to charge Maurice 'Mo' Robinson, 25, with murdering 39 migrants
  • His name is on a draft list at Chelmsford Magistrates' Court tomorrow and in the city's crown court on Monday
  • Bodies are being moved from Tilbury docks to the mortuary in Chelmsford for post-mortem examinations
  • Container the victims froze to death in made the same journey to Britain in the week before they died 
  • Chinese state media has accused the UK of failing to take responsibility for people being smuggled there 
  • Vietnamese woman feared dead after she text mother saying she was 'dying because she couldn't breathe'
  • Do you know Mo Robinson or Joanna and Thomas Maher? Call 02036151866 or email [email protected] or [email protected] 

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The husband and wife named by MailOnline as the last known owners of the lorry carrying 39 Chinese migrants who froze to death were arrested today after police swooped on their GBP400,000 Cheshire home.

Joanna Maher, 38, and her husband Thomas, also 38, from Warrington, are understood to have been held on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and on suspicion of 39 counts of manslaughter.

The couple told MailOnline last night they sold the lorry cab a year ago to a company in Ireland - but police officers investigating the tragedy raided their property today before searching the couple's beauty salon around the corner, New Hair Don't Care.

The refrigerated trailer carrying the 39 frozen trafficking victims is believed to be owned by a rental firm in Dublin.

A Cheshire Police patrol car arrived at the Irish couple's four-bedroom house at 7am this morning before up to a dozen police officers went inside at around Midday - just before the arrests were announced. The pair have not been seen today. 

Thomas Maher and his wife Joanne were arrested at 4am today from their Cheshire home over the deaths of 39 migrants

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Mrs Maher, a mother-of-three, pictured with her trucker boss husband Thomas, told MailOnline that she sold the lorry involved in the deaths of 39 migrants to an Irish haulage firm 13 months ago

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Police at the Warrington home of Joanna Maher, 38, and her husband Thomas, also 38, today where the couple are understood to have been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and on suspicion of 39 counts of manslaughter

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

A forensics officer arrived at the Warrington property this afternoon and appeared to be filming the luxury vehicles on the drive including two Range Rovers and a white sportscar

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Police the home of Joanna and Thomas Maher who were the last named owners of the lorry which was found containing 39 Chinese migrants

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Police are also searching the Warrington beauty salon, New Hair Don't Care, which is believed to belong to the Mahers

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Mrs Maher was named the keep of the Scania truck (pictured above) that was registered to the Bulgarian port of Varna in 2018 - but she said last night that she had sold it to a firm in Ireland a year ago

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Private ambulances have started filing out of Tilbury docks today as the bodies of the 39 dead Chinese migrants were moved to Chelmsford mortuary for post-mortem examinations to determine the exact cause of their deaths

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

The industrial estate where the 39 Chinese migrants were found frozen to death in the back of a lorry remains sealed off today as police questioned the driver for a third day

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Police have been given an extra 24 hours to to question Mo Robinson (left and right) after he was arrested on suspicion of murder

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

The map above shows the perilous 5,000 mile journey the 39 migrants would have taken to get to the UK having paid 'snakehead' gangsters GBP20,000 for the privilege

Officers photographed three cars on their drive, all with personalised plates: a GBP40,000 Range Rover Discovery, a GBP50,000 Range Rover Sport and a white Chevrolet Corvette sportscar.

Last night Mrs Maher told MailOnline: 'It's the cab - my name was down as owning it.

We did own it but sold it 13 months ago', adding they sold it to a company in County Monaghan, close to where truck driver Maurice 'Mo' Robinson, 25, lives.

'Sorry mum, I'm dying, I can't breathe': Vietnamese woman's haunting texts to her mother who fears daughter is amongst 39 migrants found dead

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Pham Thi Tra My sent her mother a series of harrowing text messages telling her she 'couldn't breathe'

A Vietnamese woman is feared to be among the 39 migrants who perished in the back of a lorry after she text her mother telling her that she was dying.

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

In text messages sent at 10.28pm GMT on Tuesday, Pham Thi Tra told her mother, 'I love you so much...I'm sorry.' Pictured, The screenshot of Tra My's last text and her photo

The family of Pham Thi Tra My have appealed for help after the 26-year-old sent her mother a series of harrowing messages telling her she was 'dying because she couldn't breathe.' 

The Vietnamese national is thought be among the eight women and 31 men who were discovered inside the 'metal coffin' lorry container on Wednesday morning. 

In text messages sent at 10.28pm BST on Tuesday - around the time the truck container was en route from Belgium to Britain - Pham Thi Tra told her mother: I'm sorry Mum. My journey abroad hasn't succeeded. Mum, I love you so much. I'm dying because I can't breathe.'

Tra My's mother said her daughter had travelled to China so she could then travel on to the UK in search of a better life. 

The report has emerged from Human Rights Space, a civic network based in Vietnam, but there has not yet been any further verification of its claims. 

Hoa Nghiem from HRS said: 'It was told on the news that all 39 people were Chinese but Tra My's family is trying to verify if their daughter was among them as the last dying text from her was co-incidently in time.

'Our contact is getting more alerts that there could be more Vietnamese people in the truck.' 

Police said the eight women and 31 men were all believed to be Chinese nationals, but claims have surfaced online that some may have been from Vietnam. 

The Vietnamese Embassy in London confirmed it has contacted police in regard to Tra My.

A spokesman for the embassy said they had been contacted by a family in Vietnam which claimed their daughter had been missing 'since the lorry was found'.

The spokesman said: 'We have contacted Essex Police and we are waiting for an answer.'

Mrs Maher was revealed as the keeper of the Scania truck that was registered in the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Varna in 2018. The lorry left the country the day after it was registered.

The Bulgarian businessman who handled the truck purchase Ivan Jeliazkov today insisted arrested couple are '100 per cent innocent' of wrongdoing. 

Mr Jeliazkov spoke to the Mahers on the phone late last night and said: 'They are not criminals.

I have known them for several years and know they have three children who they love very much. They are good people.

'Thomas has been unwell for a few years with a heart illness and he had to put his company into his wife's name and that is how her name is on the register.

'I handled the registration of the lorry by proxy. When I spoke with them last night they were surprised that the media were showing an interest in them as they have had nothing to do with this lorry since they sold it.' 

Police are questioning the Northern Irish trucker for the third day with a decision on whether to charge him with murder or release him on bail or without charge expected this evening.

This afternoon his name appeared on a draft list for a hearing to take place at Chelmsford Magistrates' Court tomorrow followed by a case at the city's crown court on Monday. But the CPS and police insisted it was an error by court staff.

An Essex Police spokesman said: 'We have carried out warrants in Cheshire as part of the investigation into 39 bodies being discovered in a lorry trailer in Grays.

'As a result, a 38-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman from Warrington have been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and on suspicion of 39 counts of manslaughter.

A 25-year-old man, the driver of the lorry, remains in custody on suspicion of murder'.   

The 'metal coffin' lorry container carrying Chinese migrants had previously criss-crossed the Channel via refugee hotspots in the week before it arrived in Britain with 39 frozen bodies inside, perhaps for several days, it was revealed today. 

Today their bodies were moved by private ambulance from Tilbury docks to Chelmsford mortuary for post-examinations that will run into next week. 

One neighbour saw a police car arrive in the dark at the Maher's house this morning.

He told Mailonline said: 'I saw the flashing blue and lights at their home. I looked and there was a police car there.'

Another neighbour said: 'I am shell-shocked. I know the family well. Tom really loves his cars'.

GPS tracking on the -25C sound-proofed container shows that it stopped in Dunkirk and Calais in France before heading to Zeebrugge for the fateful trip to Purfleet on Tuesday night.

The new data will increase suspicions that the unit, rented for GBP250-a-week, may have been repeatedly used by people smugglers before the 31 men and eight women were found dead in Thurrock, Essex on Wednesday morning.  

The 39 Chinese migrants who were found dead in the back of a lorry and could have been locked in the freezing trailer for days where they were frozen, or had died of suffocation, while being trapped. 

The deaths have caused fury in China, where President Xi-controlled media accusing Britain of shirking its responsibilities to the 39 dead, despite claims they were being smuggled illegally into the UK by Chinese traffickers known as snakeheads.   

In a story headlined: 'The UK must bear responsibility', state tabloid Global Times said: 'Imagine what thorough measures European countries would take if dozens of Europeans died in the same way?' - and referring to the tragedies at Dover in 2000 and Morecambe in 2004 the paper said: 'This isn't the first time this has happened - a simple question: why do these disasters always happen in the UK and not Europe or America?' 

It is believed the victims came from Fujian, a poor coastal province of south-east China, where gangsters charge GBP20,000 to smuggle people to the UK via Serbia, Hungary, Austria, France before a boat to Britain from Belgium or Holland.

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Mr Maher is a father-of-three who runs a haulage business and a hairdressers in his hometown of Warrington, Cheshire

The 54 men and four women found dead in the back of a tomato lorry which arrived in Dover on June 18, 2000 and the 23 who drowned in the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster originated were all trafficked from the same area of Fujian.

Belgium officials have since said that the migrants had been sealed in the dark trailer by time it reached Zeerugge at 2.49pm local time on Tuesday - meaning they could have been trapped for days. 

Driver Maurice 'Mo' Robinson is said to have fainted when he opened the door and saw their dead bodies on Wednesday and police have now been granted an extra 24 hours to question him.

The 25-year-old, remains in custody at an Essex police station as detectives grill him on whether he knew the 31 men and eight women were in the back.     

The 39 dead had been kept inside the refrigerated container, which had a stop-start timer, specifically designed to conserve energy.  Its instruction manual stated that this could go on and off at any time.    

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Police are still gather evidence in the area in Grays, Essex, where the lorry containing 39 dead Chinese immigrants - 31 men and eight women - was found on Tuesday

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

People gathered in London last night (above) and in Belfast to pay their respects for those who lost their lives in the container 

What we know about the death trap container trips across the Channel and the driver who picked it up with 39 dead inside

What we know about the movements of lorry driver Maurice 'Mo' Robinson 

October 15: 

Mo Robinson picked up the container from Dublin and drove it to County Monaghan, in Ireland. Robinson then drove it to Dublin and took the ferry to Holyhead.

October 20: 

The Northern Irishman crossed back to Ireland on the 2.30am ferry from Holyhead to Dublin.

He then returned to Britain on the 8.55pm ferry from Dublin to Holyhead.

October 23: 

12.30am Robinson picked up container from Purfleet port in Essex 

1.10am He pulled into Watergate Industrial Park, Essex. 

1.40am Police called by ambulance service after the 39 frozen bodies were found

What we know about the refrigeration container 

Between October 15 and October 23 the container showed up at the following locations. It is not known whether Mo Robinson was driving it.

The GPS data for its first trip to Europe shows it passed through: Warwickshire, Kent before crossing Channel to Belgium via Calais and Dunkirk. It went to Zeebrugge then back to UK. 

The second trip, where the 39 Chinese migrants were picked up, the container arrived in  Zeebrugge, possibly via Holland at 2.49pm on Tuesday October 22.

It was put on the 4pm ferry to Purfleet in Essex, where it arrived at 12.30am on October 23.

The dead bodies were found at 1.40am. 

This is while a friend of the Northern Irishman has told MailOnline that Robinson pulled over near Purfleet docks in Essex to grab paperwork from the refrigeration unit only to find dozens of frozen bodies in the rear.

A witness told the Evening Standard that he then 'passed out' after dialling 999 for an ambulance at 1.40am yesterday morning.

This is while the registered owner of the truck, tonight revealed that her and her husband sold it to a company in Ireland more than a year ago.

On Thursday night, candle lit vigils were held in both London and Belfast. 

In Belfast a small crowd of people held lit candles at the front of City Hall as a mark of respect, this is while anti-racism protesters took to the streets in Westminster, holding banners which stated 'no borders no deaths'.

Immigration lawyer Sinead Marmion was one of the organisers of the event on Thursday night in Belfast and said they had been 'outraged' at the events which have unfolded.

In London anti-racism campaigners lined the streets of Westminster with various signs and banners which welcomes migrants and refugees.

The signs also had lines on them which read 'blame austerity not migrants' and many had lined candles across walls. 

Police are probing whether the immigrants were moved into the UK by a Ireland-based people smuggling ring as three properties across the province were raided overnight, including Robinson's own home.

An Essex Police spokesman said: 'Detectives investigating the murder of 39 people in Grays have secured a warrant of further detention from local magistrates at Basildon for a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland.

'The man, a lorry driver, has been arrested on suspicion of murder and will now remain in custody for up to an additional 24 hours.'    

The stowaways - 31 men and eight women including a young adult woman - had travelled from China to the UK and slowly froze to death in 'absolutely horrendous' conditions after they tried to reach Britain on a cargo ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium. 

Police are probing whether the victims were being trafficked by criminal gangs operating in the UK who sell them as slaves to work in nail bars, brothels, massage parlours and restaurants. 

Speaking to MailOnline, the woman who had been named as the owner of the truck claim they sold it to a company in County Monaghan, close to where truck driver Mo Robinson, 25, lives.

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Police raided this property in the Laurelvale area of Co Armagh in Northern Ireland after a murder investigation was launched, which is believed to belong to the lorry driver's parents

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Officers were also seen outside this property in the Markethill area (above), believed to be where Mo Robinson lives, as they continue to investigate the 39 deaths

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

The 39 desperate stowaway migrants were locked up in the trailer (above).

It is unclear how long they had been in there for but it is believed to be at least 15 hours

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Photos show the inside of the -25C refrigerated trailer where 39 people were found dead in the early hours of Wednesday morning

Chinese state media demands Britain must 'accept some responsibility' for the 39 dead migrants

Chinese media have urged Britain and the European Union to 'accept some responsibility' for the deaths of 39 of their nationals in the Essex lorry tragedy.

The story has generated huge interest in China, with 250million people reading about the news within the first hour of it being posted on Weibo, the country's version of Twitter.

An editorial in the Global Times, a nationalist Government-controlled newspaper, said: 'Britain and the EU must accept some responsibility for the 39 deaths.

'It is clear the relevant countries have not fulfilled their responsibility to protect these people.'

The BBC reported that there were 'some signs of media management' in China with some foreign news reports being blacked out on TV news screens.

Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to the UK, said that the embassy had read the reports of the deaths 'with heavy hearts'.

But the embassy also suggested nationality had not been confirmed, raising the possibility that Chinese officials might not be convinced that the dead are from their country.

Joanna Maher, 38, from Warrington, was named as the keeper of the Scania truck that was registered in the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Varna in 2018. 

She said: 'We did own it but sold it 13 months ago. 'It's the cab - my name was down as owning it.' 

Mr Maher said he sold it on 3 October last year. He said the couple owned it for just a year. Thomas said: 'It's disgusting what's happened.

'I went to the British police as we were registered owners in Bulgaria.

I phoned them myself.

'They were happy we had come forward. They are well aware of who they are dealing with in southern Ireland.

'It's not nice to be associated with this. We're shocked.'

The couple have three children - two boys aged 18 and 11, and a 15-year-old girl.

They own two Grey Range Rovers - one with a personalised number plate - and a white Chevrolet sports car.

They bought their detached modern GBP250,000 home in Warrington, Cheshire two years ago.

Mrs Maher registered the vehicle for at a run down 10-storey building in the seaside resort of Varna.

The lorry which carried the refrigerated unit holding 39 bodies was registered last year and left the next day, having never been back to Bulgaria.

Two wealthy brothers with business interests either side of the Irish border have also been linked to the investigation amid claims they are involved in smuggling.

One local resident said: 'They are well known for having smuggled all sorts of things across the border for generations.'

Smugglers put on 'mini bus service' to deal with demand in Purfleet

Last night it was revealed that the Thames port where the migrants were found 'comes alive at night' with new arrivals.

A former security guard told The Times that smuggling is so well organised in the area that mini buses meet the migrants and take them away.

Gary Lilley had previously worked at the port for around six weeks as a security guard.

He held the position seven years ago and said he once found out that 15-passports from foreigners had been dumped in a local lay-by.  

He said: 'The port comes alive at around 2am.

I've seen groups of migrants walking out the front door of the port with carrier bags.

'When there's a group of them a few security guards on minimum wage aren't going to stop them. They are all ages, babes in arms and five-year-old girls.

'Minibuses wait there at night for them to arrive. Last summer during the heatwave I gave water bottles to two five-year-old girls as they looked desperate.'

The 61-year-old said he had been upset when he learnt about the 39 deaths, but said that he hadn't been surprised by the tragedy.

He said he previously found some Albanian passports.

He notified police, but he claims they hadn't been interested in them, so he threw them in the bin.

He also claimed that British authorities 'didn't know' what to do with those coming in illegally from other countries. 

When approached by the Daily Mail at his large, detached home a few miles into the Republic of Ireland, one of the brothers refused to comment and ordered a reporter off his property.

However there is not thought to have been any police activity focusing on their premises since the bodies were found in Essex.

No link has been established between them and either the suspect, Mr Robinson, or GTR Ltd which leased out the trailer, by the Daily Mail.

A Gardai source told the Irish Daily Mail that at this stage there was 'nothing to suggest' that haulage firms based in the Republic knew of the tragic human cargo.

The Times reported that the container crossed the Channel twice in the week before its arrival in Essex, according to GPS tracking data.

Chancellor Sajid Javid was asked on the Today programme if he was aware of staffing problems at east coast ports, in particular Purfleet, when he was home secretary.

He described what happened as 'absolutely devastating' and said 'wider lessons' will be learned.

Pressed on the matter, and told that the Home Office was warned two years ago that Border Force had staffing problems at east coast ports, including Purfleet, he said: 'I couldn't tell you about staffing particularly at Purfleet, I don't have that detail.

'But I can tell you that, during the last year, certainly the year that I was at the Home Office, there was a significant increase in the number of Border Force officers.'

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott described the deaths of the 39 people as an 'extraordinary tragedy', adding: 'Our positions is that, if we were in power, there's a number of steps that needs to be taken to make sure something like this can't happen again.

'The first step is to look at security at those smaller east coast ports.

How people-smuggling gangs use refrigerated lorries to hide their human cargo from port officials' thermal cameras... to tragic ends 

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Scanners used to detect stowaways in lorries but sources claim they don't work as well on refrigerated units.

This is image was taken at Dover, showing migrants sitting on top of boxes inside a traditional container

A refrigerated container was used to smuggle 39 Chinese nationals into the UK because it evaded detection by thermal imaging equipment, security staff at the port where it entered Britain have claimed.

The container arrived at Purfleet port, Essex, on the River Thames from Zeebrugge, Belgium.

Security personnel at both ports are equipped with thermal cameras which are used to try and detect stowaways. These are used for traditional containers but not refrigerated ones.

One security official, who did not want to be named, said: 'Thermal imaging equipment doesn't work on refrigerated containers. They are simply too cold, and you can't pick up any heat that might be coming from somebody hidden inside.

'The smuggling gang must have known this, it just goes to show how clever they are.

They are constantly looking for loopholes and sadly, it's ended up with all these people losing their lives.'

It came as locals in Purfleet and Thurrock also told MailOnline they had often seen groups of migrants close to where 39 Chinese people were found dead in a lorry yesterday.  

'The second step is to look at international cooperation, and one of my concerns is if we were to come out of the EU, we'd lose access to European Arrest Warrants, we'd lose access to all sorts of important databases around crime and missing persons.

'And losing that level of security cooperation with the EU would make it harder to crack down on people smuggling.'

Mike Gradwell, a former Lancashire Police detective superintendent who worked on the probe into the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy in which 23 Chinese illegal immigrants drowned, told BBC Breakfast that those in the trailer could have been trafficked by Snakehead gangs.

He said: 'These are criminal travel agents really - you go to a Snakehead to say you want to be trafficked to an economic opportunity and usually you'll borrow quite a significant amount of money.'

He said relatives were likely to have been in contact with those being trafficked, who may have been carrying phones which could be used by police to help identify them.

Lisa Yam, a lawyer specialising in Chinese immigration, told the programme: 'We find it is quite difficult to believe why we still have so many Chinese that choose to come into the country (like this).'

Speaking about the investigation into the Morecambe disaster, Mr Gradwell said: 'We found the survivors hadn't been told properly what this country was like; they merely had an idea it was like The Darling Buds Of May, you know, you can pick up gold off the streets.

'There is this false information to people in these provinces like Fujian that here the streets are paved with gold and you can make easy money.'

Describing the trafficking operation, he said: 'It is a huge money-making organisation that has a network throughout the world, and I would imagine they will be hitting certain tiers in this investigation, but the Mr Bigs who make the big money, I would say, are virtually untouchable unless there is a massive international operation to take these people out.'

Ms Yam said: 'I think, as the Chinese community and also we know, our relatives, we have friends in China, and I think every single one should bring the message to them and tell them that if they want to come to the UK they should choose the proper way.'  

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Robinson arrived in the UK at the weekend after a ferry from Dublin to Holyhead. He picked up the trailer, which had been shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet, yesterday morning.

Minutes later, he pulled into the Essex industrial estate and the alarm was raised

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Two houses have been raided by police in Northern Ireland - one belonging to the lorry driver in Markethill and the other belonging to his parents in Laurelvale, both Co Armagh.

A third house in Armagh City has also been raided

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Final journey: How the 39 tragic migrants ended up in Purfleet, Essex, dead in the back of a refrigerated biscuit lorry

Murder detectives in Essex are still interviewing lorry driver Maurice 'Mo' Robinson, 25, whose home in Markethill, Co Armagh, was raided last night before a team entered the nearby home he used to share with his parents, who have flown to England overnight to support their son. A third property in Armagh City was also searched this morning.

Group of east African children found in Belfast last week 'had travelled to Northern Ireland in a shipping container with up to 50 other people', they tell police

Police are investigating the discovery of several groups of African children being smuggled into Belfast.

The children, thought to be from the northeast African country of Eritrea are believed to have arrived in the UK in a shipping container with up to 50 people.

It comes as 39 migrants were found dead in a shipping container in Essex on Wednesday.

Police are now liaising with health trusts in order to understand the circumstances as to how the children had made it various locations in Belfast.

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Map shows Eritrea in relation to Belfast and Essex 

The children were discovered in different locations, with the first being found on August 2.

Among the incidents, it is understood that six were discovered in the harbour area of the city in the second week of October while three others presented themselves to the authorities the following week.

According to both police and health sources, some of those latter three children claimed they had arrived in the city in a shipping container containing 'up to 50 people'.

While police are working to establish whether those claims can be substantiated, it is understood officers have yet to find 'hard evidence' to verify the accounts.  

Police are focussing on whether Robinson knew he was picking up dozens of immigrants from Purfleet docks on Tuesday night amid claims his HGV's -25c chiller unit, usually carrying biscuits and mushrooms from Ireland, was switched on. 

The migrants were huddled inside the super-chilled sound-proofed container for at least 15 hours by the time the door was opened by Mr Robinson, who called an ambulance from an industrial estate in Thurrock, Essex, at 1.40am yesterday. 

A friend of the murder suspect told MailOnline today: 'Mo is from the nicest family you could meet. I'm telling you now, he wouldn't have known those people were in the back.

'Apparently he'd parked up at the industrial estate in Essex and had gone to fetch the paperwork from a pocket on the inside of the lorry door.

When he opened the container up and saw all the dead bodies, he was absolutely horrified - as anyone would be - and called the ambulance service who in turn alerted the police. I heard the container was refrigerated - the temperature was -25C and the bodies were frozen and had been dead for some time.' 

Supporters have set up a 'JusticeforMo' group, claiming he is being unfairly treated by police. A petition calling for his release has reached 5,000. 

The Essex lorry disaster is the biggest tragedy of its kind since 2000, when 58 Chinese stowaways died on a ferry from Belgium to Britain. 

Detectives are now looking into an Irish people smuggling ring which has links to the Bulgarian city of Varna, where the truck is registered to, and may have been moving human cargo from China between Zeebrugge and the Essex port of Purfleet due to increased security at Dover and Calais. 

Varna, a port on the Black Sea, is ideal for traffickers because it has ferry links to Asia via Turkey, Georgia and Russia.

Shaun Sawyer, the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall Police and the National Police Chiefs Council lead for modern slavery and human trafficking, admitted today that people smuggling gangs see the UK as an 'easy target' to lure migrants. 

He told the BBC: 'One can go back to 2000 when 58 Chinese nationals were found dead in Dover - there's a real timeline of the misery here. 

'The attraction of the UK which, whether we accept it or not, is hugely economically wealthy. It has human rights.

It's perceived though, by organised crime, as a potential easy target to inculcate and be purveyors of hope and then treating despair and misery which can lead to loss of life. 

'The reality is that it's incumbent on all of us to realise that there is the right and obligation for the UK to defend its borders. 

'We reach out as a country on a global stage but we must protect our borders from infiltration.

'We want to be a welcoming country. There are routes but unfortunately the smugglers and human traffickers will exploit the doubt, exploit the push factors in country and bring people here at risk to their life'.   

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Police have launched the biggest murder investigation in Britain since 7/7 but have only made one arrest so far

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Well-wishers have left flowers at the scene where the Chinese nationals were found dead two days' ago

Specialist teams are conducting fingertip searches of the road leading into the Waterglade Industrial Park in Thurrock, Essex.

A dozen officers in black uniforms and gloves have been seen on their hands and knees today scouring the area near where the lorry had been parked.

Police have extended their search site, putting up a cordon next to the green barriers already in place as they hunt for clues.

A strong police presence remains at the industrial estate, with several cars parked there and uniformed officers manning the cordon.

Flowers for the victims were also left at the cordon.

Experts yesterday said the temperature inside the refrigerated trailer unit, which is said to usually carry biscuits, might have been as low as -25C (-13F) when they perished. In reality, they could have been inside their metal coffin for much longer. Although paramedics reached the scene minutes after being called out, all they found was a pile of bodies.

Mo Robinson, who is expecting twins with his partner, called his lorry 'the Polar Express', having started working for himself around a year ago after leaving a larger haulier firm in Northern Ireland. 

On Tuesday night the trucker was waiting inside his purple lorry cab at Purfleet docks for the container to be unloaded from the ship.

The self-employed haulier, who lives in the Northern Irish village of Laurelvale in County Armagh, drove out of the port 35 minutes later with it attached to his lorry.

He drove his Scania truck one mile to an industrial estate in Grays, Essex, where he arrived at 1.10am yesterday.

CCTV footage has emerged of the lorry driving towards the Waterglade Industrial Park minutes before the shocking discovery inside the container.

An ambulance control room then received a 999 call informing them of the bodies in the container.

Last night police would not reveal if this call was made by Mr Robinson. The East of England Ambulance Service were the first to arrive. Five ambulances, hazardous area response teams and a car from the Essex and Herts Air Ambulance were all dispatched.

Essex Police were then called. Minutes later, they arrested Mr Robinson on suspicion of murder.  

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Robinson was pictured posing in front of a truck wearing a cowboy hat and a drink in hand (left), and also previously larking with police (right)

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Police officers bowed their heads as the truck passed. Detectives have begun the process of trying to identify 39 bodies found in a lorry on an industrial estate in Essex

The deaths follow warnings from the National Crime Agency (NCA) and the Border Force of the increased risk of people-smuggling via Belgium and into quieter ports such as Purfleet.

The NCA previously said it had a 'greater focus' on rising smuggler numbers in Belgium after the closure of a migrant camp, and a Border Force assessment highlighted Zeebrugge as being among 'key ports of embarkation for clandestine arrivals'.

The NCA has also warned that criminal networks are suspected to have started targeting quieter ports on the east and south coasts of the UK as well as the main Channel crossing between Calais and Dover. 

Mastermind in misery: Brutal rise and fall of 'Snakehead' gang leader 'Sister Ping' - as it emerges Triad-linked mob use Chinese version of TINDER to lure desperate families to UK with offers of '100% safe travel' for 'GBP20,000 fee' 

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Snakeshead  kingpin, Cheng Chui Ping, also known as 'Sister Ping', who ran the world's largest people smuggling network for 20 years until her death in a US jail

By Tracy You and Martin Robinson

The trafficking gang believed to have smuggled the tragic 39 Asian migrants into Britain was built by a ruthless Chinese matriarch known as the 'Mother of all Snakeheads' who made millions from trafficking during a 20-year reign of terror.

Gangland boss Sister Ping died in a Texas prison in 2014 where she was serving 35 years for building the world's most sophisticated network of people smugglers who brought up to 200,000 illegal immigrants into America alone.

At her New York trial in 2005 she was described as 'evil incarnate' who had made a fortune moving generations of Chinese people around the world for GBP20,000 since the early 1980s.

This debt would either be paid back in wages from menial work in the West - or relatives back in the Chinese province of Fujian, known as the country's 'cradle of human smuggling', would be forced at gunpoint to take out a loan from Sister Ping's own sharks.

Police eventually traced Sister Ping to China Town in New York and put her in the dock for people smuggling. But despite her incarceration and death her snakehead gang is still going strong - although its new leader is not yet known. 

Without her the gang is moving with the times and using social media apps including China's equivalent to Tinder, MoMo, as well as popular messaging app WeChat, promising '100 per cent safe travel'.

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

The south-eastern province of Fujian in China has a long histories of sending migrants abroad for cash

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Traffickers are using social media apps including China's equivalent to Tinder, MoMo (pictured), as well as popular messaging app WeChat

Adverts with attractive slogans such as 'speedy passage of border checks!

Pay upon arrival!' are circulating on apps.

People dreaming of a new life away from China pay an online deposit as low as 5,000 yuan (GBP550) before being crammed into boats or containers for a long, dark and risky journey, local media reported.   

Chinese, particularly those with lower education levels, continue to be drawn to Europe and North America by the promise of much higher wages than they can earn at home, despite the considerable risks involved.

The victims would flee home hoping for a better life in the UK - but their journey to Britain would be miserable and dangerous, spending up to a month in the back of lorries in dangerous and squalid conditions.

Most would be flown from China to Serbia and then transported by road through Hungary, Austria, France before a boat to Britain from Belgium or Holland. 

Mike Gradwell, a former Lancashire Police detective superintendent who worked on the probe into the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy in which 23 Chinese illegal immigrants drowned, told BBC Breakfast that those in the trailer were most likely trafficked by Snakehead gangs.

He said: 'These are criminal travel agents really - you go to a Snakehead to say you want to be trafficked to an economic opportunity and usually you'll borrow quite a significant amount of money.'

He said relatives were likely to have been in contact with those being trafficked, who may have been carrying phones which could be used by police to help identify them.

Lisa Yam, a lawyer specialising in Chinese immigration, told the programme: 'We find it is quite difficult to believe why we still have so many Chinese that choose to come into the country (like this).'  

 

Vile slave trade of China's Snakeheads: PAUL BRACCHI reveals how brutal criminal gangs exploit the country's poor, shipping them across the world

There is a saying in China that, 'when one person goes abroad, the whole family makes money'. 

Might this hold the key to the pitiful discovery inside a refrigerated lorry on an industrial park in Essex? It would seem so.

The 39 stowaways who died, it has now been confirmed, were not from Africa, the Middle East or Eastern Europe, as was initially suspected, but China.

China has undergone rapid economic growth since the 1980s, making it the second richest nation on earth after the U.S. -- prosperity symbolised by the skyscrapers of Shanghai and the gleaming Bird's Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing, images we have all seen countless times on TV. 

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

The terrible events of the past few days are but the latest example of the trade in 'human cargo' between China and Britain, a 5,000-mile route through Asia and mainland Europe that can take a month

But, outside the big cities, many Chinese (more than 30 million, according to Forbes magazines) live in abject poverty.

The majority of the disadvantaged and dispossessed live in the country on farmland which is sometimes little more than semi-desert and in homes which can often be found carved into the mountainside. 

Others are crammed into suburban slums. And the gap between rich and poor is widening, fuelled, in part, by the continuing trade war with the U.S. which has forced many factories to close, disproportionately punishing some of the least well-off in society.

Surveys have repeatedly found that even those from China's upper and middle class are eager to leave the mainland, citing concerns about the lack of high-quality schooling and health care, and lingering pollution and food safety problems.

The truth is that a growing number of Chinese dream of leaving their homeland in search of a better life in the West, especially Britain where there is already a large Chinese community.

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

The 39 stowaways who died, it has now been confirmed, were not from Africa, the Middle East or Eastern Europe, as was initially suspected, but China

Officially, there are 207,000 Chinese-born UK citizens, the tenth biggest group of overseas-born residents. 

Chinese nationals made 1,139 asylum applications in the year ending June 2019 -- up 16 per cent from the 2018 total, the highest number of asylum applications over the past decade.

The unofficial total, though, could be significantly higher.

They disappear into the black market, working in restaurant kitchens, as agricultural labour or even cannabis farms. Women are often set up in nail salons or forced to work in brothels.

The terrible events of the past few days are but the latest example of the trade in 'human cargo' between China and Britain, a 5,000-mile route through Asia and mainland Europe that can take a month.

Two previous tragedies provide clues into the harrowing story which may yet lay behind the deaths of the latest victims.

In 2000, the bodies of 58 Chinese people were found in a sealed, airless container at Dover port. Post-mortems confirmed their deaths were due to asphyxiation. 

Perry Wacker, a Dutch lorry driver, was jailed for 14 years for manslaughter of the immigrants who had paid a criminal gang thousands of pounds to be smuggled into the UK. 

The inquest heard Wacker had closed a vent at the side of the container as the lorry went onto a ferry, fearing they'd be heard.

Four years later, 23 Chinese cocklepickers drowned after their ruthless gangmaster abandoned them on treacherous sands in Morecambe Bay. 

Their recruiter, Lin Liang Ren, who was based here, was jailed for 14 years for manslaughter at Preston Crown Court.

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

In 2000, the bodies of 58 Chinese people were found in a sealed, airless container at Dover port.

Post-mortems confirmed their deaths were due to asphyxiation. Perry Wacker, a Dutch lorry driver, was jailed for 14 years for manslaughter of the immigrants who had paid a criminal gang thousands of pounds to be smuggled into the UK

Both Dover and Morecambe Bay have at least one other thing in common: Fujian province. All those who died came from this region of south-eastern China, situated opposite the island of Taiwan.

Fujian is also the 'home' of the notorious Snakeheads, an off-shoot of the Triads.

The Snakeheads, who specialise in people smuggling, are so-called because those who wish to get out of China illegally need guidance as they 'twist and turn' to find ways around border controls -- 'a sophisticated travel service in human misery,' they have been labelled.

Back in the 1990s, their activities were focused on Hong Kong, providing black market labour mostly to the kitchens of restaurants run by Hong Kong's long-established Chinese community.

In the intervening years, the Snakeheads have branched out supplying young women, who are often kidnapped and forced into the sex trade in Britain. 

Some, as young as 11, have arrived in this country without passports or visas and claim asylum.

Once here, they vanish from hostels or foster care to which they have been assigned by the immigration authorities.

Home Office statistics show 3,641 women entered immigration detention in 2018 -- with 420 of these being Chinese.

The latest annual statistics from the National Crime Agency (NCA) show the number of Chinese people reported to the National Referral Mechanism, which assesses instances of modern slavery, has increased by more than 50 per cent from 293 in 2017 to 451 in 2018.

Between January to March this year, another 131 Chinese slaves were referred for help, half of whom had been found by UK Border Force or immigration enforcement teams, and other victims were reported to police in the West Midlands, Gloucestershire, Cambridgeshire and London.

When the NCA launched a Europe-wide operation targeting slavery and human trafficking in June, there were more Chinese victims found in the UK than almost any other nationality, representing more than a fifth of the 35 victims identified at that time.

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Four years later, 23 Chinese cocklepickers drowned after their ruthless gangmaster abandoned them on treacherous sands in Morecambe Bay.

Their recruiter, Lin Liang Ren, who was based here, was jailed for 14 years for manslaughter at Preston Crown Court

The Snakeheads, of course, also target economic migrants. They were linked to the Dover tragedy, the worst such incident of its kind in Britain which has chilling parallels with the latest discovery at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex. The lorries in both cases entered the country from Zeebrugge in Belgium.

London lawyer Tan Wah Piow has acted for around 6,000 asylum seekers from China since the 1990s, 

The majority came from Fujian province.

It is where, he said, the saying -- 'when one person goes abroad, the whole family make money' -- originates.

'For there to be a group of 39 in a container, they are most likely from Fujian, maybe even from the same place in Fujian,' he told the Mail. 'Fujian is prosperous nowadays and part of that prosperity is down to the remittances from relatives abroad.

'In Fujian there is a history of getting on in life by going abroad and sending money back. The majority of Chinese arriving since the Nineties, discounting students, are from Fujian. The UK still attracts people from the province.'

Poor people, he said, have the same concerns, but less opportunity to emigrate.

The Chinese government controls who can get a passport and who qualifies for an exit permit. 

'The people in containers will be the poor who are unable to get visas to come to work and live in the UK, and so they have resorted to paying people smugglers,' said Tan.

Bernie Gravett, a former police superintendent and an international expert in human trafficking crime says it is unlikely the victims asked to be trafficked. 

He said: 'They will have been approached originally by the criminals in south China, where millions live in the direst poverty.

'The salesmen for the gangs will have promised that lucrative jobs were waiting in the West, and that migrants would be able to send money home to their families, and return to China when they wanted.

'A high price is usually stipulated in advance: the migrants would face charges of, on average, GBP50,000. But they would be promised a chance to pay this off in instalments, out of their wages. The victims are being cheated and deceived, but it is rare to talk to any who were kidnapped or sold into slavery from the outset.

'Once the journey begins, so does the brutality.

When victims start to complain at their conditions, perhaps asking for food, they will be beaten. Sometimes one will be maimed or killed, to frighten the others into submission.'

The brutality and desperation of the victims chimes with the findings of the Chinese In Britain Forum charity.

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

China has undergone rapid economic growth since the 1980s, making it the second richest nation on earth after the U.S. -- prosperity symbolised by the skyscrapers of Shanghai and the gleaming Bird's Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing

In 2009, it interviewed 177 Chinese migrants living in London, many of them undocumented, about why they came to Britain. 

Those who took part revealed heart-breaking stories of being smuggled into the UK to escape persecution or because of aspirations to the 'good life' imagined within these shores.

'In China, it is hard to find work and wages are low,' said one. 'If you had a family you can't support them. It may not even be enough for your own spending.

The cost of living is particularly high. The money you earn may not even be enough for food and drink.'

Descriptions of corrupt officials and enforcement of the one-child policy were commonplace. 

'We were subjected to persecution,' said another who was interviewed. 'When my wife was thinking of having a second baby she was sent to prison and was fined.

'I came here because I wanted to be able to feed my family and have a reasonable standard of living. But when I arrived here what I saw was totally different to what I had imagined.

Life was hard for me.' 

A third Chinese resident, called Wang Wei, smuggled into the UK via Dover, gave the following harrowing account of his journey. 

'They [the criminal gang] put me inside a container and said we will take you to a safe place. Well, it took more than a month, more than 40 days. All inside the container.

I didn't know where I was. I guess I was on the sea. I only noticed the container was loaded and unloaded.

'They got food for me.

You pee inside as well . . . inside the container for more than 40 days. I paid them more than GBP15,000.'

It is hard not to believe that the reason for the latest tragedy lies somewhere in these pitiful testimonies.

Additional reporting Tim Stewart

 

'The migrant minibuses wait there all night': How quiet Essex port at centre of death truck tragedy 'comes alive at night' as ruthless traffickers exchange human cargo under cover of darkness

People-smuggling operations are so rife at the port where 39 Chinese people were found dead this week that there is said to be a 'migrant minibus service'.

Former port security guard Gary Lilley, 61, has described how Purfleet on the River Thames in Essex 'comes alive at night' with the arrival of trafficked migrants.

Mr Lilley, who lives opposite the port where he worked for six weeks in 2012, also claimed minibuses meet lorries to take away the migrants following their arrival.

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Lorries are pictured outside the Purfleet Thames Terminal in Essex on Wednesday

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

An aerial view of Purfleet Port (file image) where 39 Chinese people were found dead this week

He told The Times that there is a 'notorious' lay-by near the port where migrants ditch their documents so UK authorities don't know where to repatriate them to.

He added: 'Minibuses wait there at night for them to arrive. Last summer during the heatwave I gave water bottles to two five-year-old girls as they looked desperate.

'They were standing by the side of the road in a group of about 15.

At the lay-by you see the lorries pull up and the migrants pop their heads out to see if it's safe.

'On many occasions I've seen minibuses pull up and they jump in and are driven off.

It's so organised.'  

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Purfleet in Essex is said to 'come alive at night' with the arrival of trafficked migrants

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Minibuses are said to meet lorries to take away the migrants following their arrival at Purfleet 

Death trap lorry container crossed the Channel twice before deaths of 39 Chinese people

Police drive the lorry along a road from the scene at Waterglade Industrial Park on Wednesday

Mr Lilley said security is 'lax' at the port, with an X-ray scanner on a customs and excise lorry arriving once every two months for a day to scan vehicles arriving.

The local resident, who has lived in the area for 30 years, said the deaths were 'heartbreaking' and left him upset - but he was not surprised by what happened.

It follows the National Crime Agency warning in 2016 that people-smugglers were switching to Purfleet because it was 'less busy' than other UK entry points.

The incident on Wednesday has raised questions about border checks and whether the authorities have done enough to tackle trafficking gangs.

This May the NCA warned that Belgian ports such as Zeebrugge - from where the contained travelled to Purfleet - were becoming people-smuggling hotspots.

An earlier report from the Border Force also said Zeebrugge was a key concern.

Asked about security at Purfleet, a Home Office spokesman said this week: 'I cannot comment on the specific deployment of Border Force staff and security technology.'

Last night, police began moving the bodies found in the refrigerated trailer attached to a lorry as a 25-year-old man remains in custody on suspicion of murder.

 

                   

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