Essex lorry deaths: Police probe 'wider conspiracy' amid claims victims had travelled from Vietnam in people-trafficking 'convoy'

Police are investigating whether the deaths of 39 people found in a lorry in Essex were part of a “wider conspiracy” to traffic people, following reports the victims had set out from Vietnam in a larger group. British detectives met with the Vietnamese ambassador to the UK on Saturday, amid claims most of the men and women found in a refrigerated trailer in Grays this week were from one rural community in the southeast Asian country. The victims are believed to have been part of a group of 100 migrants who set out to reach the UK for “a new life”, according to Father Anthony Dang Huu Nam, minister of a Catholic church in Vietnam’s rural Nghe An province.

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He described their suspected deaths as “a catastrophe for our community”. Police had initially believed all 31 men and eight women found in the trailer were Chinese, but on Friday night they said the nationality of those killed was “now a developing picture”. Father Nam, a priest in the remote town of Yen Thanh, 180 miles south of Hanoi, said he was in contact with family members of several suspected victims.

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Thirty-nine bodies have been found in a lorry container in Essex, police have said

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The discovery of 38 adults and one teenager was made at an industrial estate in Thurrock

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Police said they believed the lorry had come from Bulgaria and entered the UK at Holyhead, in Wales, on Saturday.

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Essex Police said it had launched a murder investigation after its officers were called to Waterglade Industrial Park, in Grays, in the early hours of Wednesday morning

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A 25-year-old-man from Northern Ireland has been arrested on suspicion of murder

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In a statement, Chief Superintendent Andrew Mariner said: “This is a tragic incident where a large number of people have lost their lives. 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. Reuter TV

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Thirty-nine bodies have been found in a lorry container in Essex, police have said

PA

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The discovery of 38 adults and one teenager was made at an industrial estate in Thurrock

Reuter TV

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Police said they believed the lorry had come from Bulgaria and entered the UK at Holyhead, in Wales, on Saturday.

Getty

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Essex Police said it had launched a murder investigation after its officers were called to Waterglade Industrial Park, in Grays, in the early hours of Wednesday morning

Reuter TV

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A 25-year-old-man from Northern Ireland has been arrested on suspicion of murder

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In a statement, Chief Superintendent Andrew Mariner said: “This is a tragic incident where a large number of people have lost their lives.

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. Reuter TV

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He told Reuters news agency: “According to a few sources that have told me, in this case there were many people, more than 100 were on their way to a new life, but 39 died. A few families confirmed the deaths of their relatives who are the victims of this tragic journey.”

The priest said his town was “covered in sorrow”.

He added: “I’m still collecting contact details for all the victim’s families, and will hold a ceremony to pray for them tonight.”

Victims’ relatives reportedly believe the container in which their bodies were found was part of a convoy of three lorries being brought to the UK. According to Sky News, two of the trucks are thought to have earlier completed their trips but third was delayed at an unknown location. In a press conference on Saturday, detective chief inspector Martin Pasmore refused to comment whether the lorry had formed part of a convoy but said investigating officers remained “open-minded”.

He added: “There are lines of inquiry that are set on course to establish whether or not there are wider conspiracies involved in this … but I can say no more than that.”

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Essex Police said it would not speculate on the nationality of the victims, but Mr Pasmore confirmed he had met with the Vietnamese ambassador to the UK to discuss the investigation on Saturday morning.

“Although we can’t speculate at this time on the nationality of our victims, it’s clear from everybody that we are getting a large amount of engagement from the Vietnamese population, from communities home and abroad,” he added. Chinese and Vietnamese officials are both working closely with British police, their respective embassies have said, while Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has ordered local authorities to investigate alleged people trafficking.

A news website for Vietnamese expatriates in the UK said it received around 20 photos of people reported missing since the bodies were discovered on Wednesday.

Viethome said it wanted to “focus on filtering information, finding missing people and confirming the victims’ identities” and that was engaging with UK police on the matter. One of those reported missing is aged just 15, while the eldest is 45. It emerged on Friday that a missing Vietnamese woman had texted her mother to say “I can’t breathe” at the time the lorry was being shipped from Belgium to the UK on Tuesday night.

Pham Thi Tra My, 26, sent a message saying “I’m dying”, and has not been heard from since.

The text was sent at 4.28am on Wednesday Vietnamese time, the screenshot shows. In Britain the time would have been 10.28pm, when the trailer was in transit between Zebrugge and Purrfleet.

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The bodies were found on an industrial estate in Grays just over three hours later. Another Vietnamese citizen feared to have been in a truck is Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, whose father said he received a chilling call to say his son died en route to the UK.

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, and that he would pay 11,000 pounds (£14,000) for the journey.

But Mr 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,” he said. “It seemed that he was in the truck with the accident, all of them dead.”

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A former Metropolitan Police officer who now advises the EU on human trafficking said Vietnamese families were known to paying smugglers large sums of money to help transport relatives into Europe through Russia.

Bernie Gravett said identifying the victims found in Essex would be a difficult process because false documents were often issued to victims of trafficking

He told the BBC: “It’s a cruel stage for the families, because hundreds if not thousands are currently on those routes, so I appreciate we are getting calls from Vietnam saying ‘my loved one is missing’ and ‘my loved one may be on that lorry’ but they could be on another lorry.

“These lorries are coming through on a weekly basis, we have just found one, others get through undetected and the victims then go on to be exploited in the UK.”

Three people have been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and people trafficking in connection with the incident.

A 48-year-old man from Northern Ireland was arrested at Stansted Airport on Friday, police said, after a couple were detained in Warrington in Cheshire overnight on Thursday.

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