Update Thurs., Oct. 24, 2019: Police have confirmed that the 39 victims were Chinese nationals. In a statement, the Chinese embassy said: “We read with a heavy heart the reports about the death of 39 people in Essex, England. We are in close contact with the British police to seek clarification and confirmation of the relevant reports.”
The truck was found at an industrial park in the Thurrock area of Essex. Police believe that the truck was from Bulgaria and entered the United Kingdom on Saturday through Holyhead, a Welsh city that primarily serves as a port for ferries from Ireland. But it’s unclear what happened in the intervening days before the bodies were found.
According to authorities, all of the victims, with the exception of one teenager, were adults. Their bodies were found in a refrigeration container where temperatures could reach as low as -13 degrees Fahrenheit.
Authorities identified Mo Robinson, a 25-year-old truck driver from Northern Ireland, as the driver of the truck. Facebook photos show Robinson driving a truck that appears to be the same one found at the industrial park on Wednesday morning. Robinson has been arrested and charged with murder.
The Bulgarian ministry of foreign affairs has said that the truck was registered in Varna, a seaside town in Bulgaria. The truck was reportedly registered under the name of a company that is owned by a woman with Irish citizenship, but neither the company nor the woman have been identified as yet.
Because the occupants of the truck have not yet been identified, authorities have not yet reported where the victims were from or how they died. Despite initial reports that the truck was registered in Bulgaria, the country is a member of the European Union and Bulgarians have full EU citizenship, making it less likely that the victims were of Bulgarian descent if they were attempting to travel to the United Kingdom.
It’s also unclear whether the victims were involved in a human trafficking operation, or a migrant smuggling effort gone horribly wrong. According to authorities, the route the truck is suspected of taking into the United Kingdom is an unusual one for traffickers, though it is possible that the route was taken to avoid stricter border checks at entry points like Dover. At such entry points, border officials use such methods as heartbeat and body heat-detecting technology to scan trucks, making it increasingly difficult for migrants to cross borders.
In recent years, there has been a number of high-profile migration-related deaths in Europe, which some have attributed to increasingly stringent border controls. In 2000, the bodies of 58 Chinese migrants were found in the back of a truck on a ferry from the Netherlands. And in 2015, the bodies of 71 migrants were found in the back of an abandoned truck on the border of Austria and Hungary. Authorities later reported that they had suffocated to death. Last spring, a Hungarian court sentenced four men charged with leading the smuggling operation to life imprisonment, accusing them of deliberately ignoring the migrants’ cries for help while they banged on the back of the truck, begging to be let out.
The issue is not limited to the European Union. In 2018, more than 260 people died while crossing the United States/Mexico border, according to an unclassified government report. Many of the deaths were due to drowning while trying to cross rivers at the border.