Police breakthrough in UK smuggling deaths

 

All 39 people found dead in a refrigerated container truck in England last week were Vietnamese nationals, British police say.

The revelation comes as three more people were arrested in Ireland and Vietnam in the sprawling international investigation into what appears to be a people-smuggling tragedy. British detectives initially said the victims discovered near the southeast port of Purfleet on October 23 were from China, but families from Vietnam have contacted authorities there with concerns for missing relatives.

Essex Police Assistant Chief Constable Tim Smith said that "at this time, we believe the victims are Vietnamese nationals, and we are in contact with the Vietnamese government."

He said police think they have traced the relatives of some of the dead.

"We believe we have identified families for some of the victims whose journey ended in tragedy on our shores," he said.

"The confirmatory evidence needed to formally present cases to HM Senior Coroner for her consideration has not yet been obtained.

"This evidence is being gathered across a number of jurisdictions worldwide. As a result, we cannot at this time announce the identity of any of the victims."

Mr Smith said specially trained people, supported by Vietnamese interpreters, were manning its dedicated hotline between 9am to midnight, seven days a week, for people seeking to be in touch about the incident.

Vietnam's embassy in London said it was "deeply saddened" at the news and sent "heartfelt condolences" to the victims' families.

Family members and neighbours of Pham Thi Tra My, believed to be one of the 39 people found dead in a refrigerated truck in Britain, attend a praying ceremony with Buddhist monks. Picture: Getty
Family members and neighbours of Pham Thi Tra My, believed to be one of the 39 people found dead in a refrigerated truck in Britain, attend a praying ceremony with Buddhist monks. Picture: Getty

"Specific identities of the victims still need to be identified and confirmed by the relevant authorities of Vietnam and U.K.," it said in a statement.

British police have charged 25-year-old Maurice Robinson, from Northern Ireland, with 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people. They say he drove the cab of the truck to Purfleet, where it picked up the container, which had arrived by ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium.

Another man was arrested Friday in Ireland, and two others in Vietnam. Two people suspected of organising a people-smuggling operation in Vietnam were arrested in Ha Tinh province following reports from 10 families there of missing relatives, VTV television reported.

Family members and neighbours of Nguyen Dinh Luong, believed to be one of the 39 people found dead in the refrigerated truck. Picture: Getty
Family members and neighbours of Nguyen Dinh Luong, believed to be one of the 39 people found dead in the refrigerated truck. Picture: Getty

Colonel Nguyen Tien Nam, deputy chief of Ha Tinh provincial police, was quoted as saying the suspects were directly involved in the case in which people paid smugglers to be taken to England and are now feared to be among the bodies found in the container.

Police said the suspects have been organising people smuggling in the area for several years.

In Ireland, a 22-year-old man was arrested on a British warrant. Essex Police said they had started extradition proceedings to bring him to the U.K. to face charges of manslaughter.

A spokesman for the Dublin High Court said Eamonn Harrison, of Newry in Northern Ireland, appeared in court Friday.

Emergency services were called to Grays, Essex where 39 bodies were found in the back of a truck.
Emergency services were called to Grays, Essex where 39 bodies were found in the back of a truck.

He faces extradition to the UK after allegedly delivering the trailer in which the migrants were found to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before its onward journey to Britain, The Sun reports.

Harrison has been remanded in custody in Cloverhill Prison, Dublin, until November 11.

The Belfast Telegraph reports that British authorities want his extradition for prosecution on 39 counts of manslaughter, one charge of conspiracy to commit human trafficking and another of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Maurice "Mo" Robinson, 25, who drove the lorry container has been charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering

British officials have stepped up patrols in Purfleet and announced an agreement with Belgium to allow more British immigration officers to be based in Zeebrugge.

Hoang Thi Ai, mother of Hoang Van Tiep, who is feared to be among the England truck dead. Picture: AP
Hoang Thi Ai, mother of Hoang Van Tiep, who is feared to be among the England truck dead. Picture: AP

ARRESTS IN VIETNAM

Vietnam police said two people were arrested for alleged involvement in the case, which has exposed the dangers of illegal people-smuggling from Vietnam to Europe.

Many of the suspected victims came from Ha Tinh province where police arrested two in connection with "the case of 39 dead bodies found in a container truck in the UK", according to a statement on the website of the Ha Tinh police in central Vietnam.

They were accused of "organising and brokering for other people to go abroad and stay abroad illegally", the report said.

Several Vietnamese families said they heard from relatives before their crossing into the UK but have had no contact since.

DNA samples have been taken from relatives in central Vietnam to help with the complex process of confirming the victims.

POLICE URGE UK DEATH TRUCK SUSPECTS TO SURRENDER

British police have appealed to two brothers, allegedly involved in the people-smuggling case, from Northern Ireland to hand themselves in.

Police say Ronan Hughes and his brother Christopher are crucial to their inquiries into last week's discovery of the bodies of 31 men and eight women in a container on an industrial estate in Grays, east of London.

The brothers are wanted on suspicion of manslaughter and human trafficking. Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten said they had spoken by telephone to Ronan Hughes recently but they needed to question them in person.

It's believed Ronan Hughes rang detectives trying to find out information about Robinson after he was arrested last week.

"Today I want to make a direct appeal: Ronan and Christopher, hand yourselves in to the Police Service of Northern Ireland," Detective Chief Inspector Stoten said.

"We need you both to come forward and assist this investigation."

The discovery of the bodies has shone a spotlight on the illicit trade that sends the poor of Asia, Africa and the Middle East on perilous journeys to the West.

The bodies were found in the early hours of October 23 after the container arrived in Britain from Zeebrugge in Belgium.

The Hughes brothers run a haulage business on the Northern Ireland border with the Republic.

Ronan Hughes is alleged to have leased the refrigerated container from another Irish company, Dublin-based Global Trailer Rentals (GTR).

Ronan Hughes lives in the county in the Republic of Ireland that borders Armagh.

There is no suggestion the brothers were aware of the plot to smuggle migrants using the cab or the container.

Truck driver Mo Robinson, who police have charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, is due to appear in court on October 28. Picture: Facebook Mo Robinson
Maurice “Mo” Robinson has been charged with 39 counts of manslaughter. Picture: Facebook

GANG KINGPIN IDENTIFIED

Meanwhile, police in Vietnam investigating the migrants' deaths have identified the millionaire kingpin believed to be behind the fatal people-smuggling plot, it is reported.

A special police task force believes gang lord Mr Truong has made millions trafficking desperate Vietnamese migrants into Britain and the US.

The mob master is thought to lead the gang in Vietnam, but work alongside the Chinese Snakehead crime syndicate set up in the 1980s by the infamous Jing Ping Chen, known as the Godmother of the Snakeheads, or Sister Ping.

At least 24 of the victims found in the lorry trailer on an industrial estate in Grays last week are said to be from the Ha Tinh province and neighbouring Nghe An provinces of Vietnam.

A source told the Daily Mirror: "As much as these gangs like to hide in the shadows, their names are being whispered in the community.

"While they now threaten the families who were smuggled with violence to keep them silent, each day the police are building up a picture on the operation Truong oversees."

Thomas and Joanna Maher were arrested in relation to the death truck. Picture: Facebook
Thomas and Joanna Maher were arrested in relation to the death truck. Picture: Facebook

TRUCK FILLED 'WITH COOKIES'

New reports have suggested the people smugglers who shipped the 39 migrants into Essex, pretended their truck was filled with cookies and biscuits, the Belgian federal prosecutor has claimed.

One driver, named by the federal prosecutor as a 23-year-old Northern Irishman, is alleged to have told port officials in Zeebrugge that because cookies did not need to be frozen, he did not need to turn the container's refrigeration unit on, according to Het Nieuwsblad.

Belgium now believe that the 31 men and eight women suffocated, rather than froze to death as previously believed, though there has been no official confirmation of this.

DEATH TRUCK DRIVER 'SHOWED NO EMOTION' IN COURT

On Monday, Robinson appeared in court charged with manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic.

Each of the manslaughter charges he faces, carry a maximum life sentence.

Three other suspects have been released on bail over the shocking tragedy.

Thomas Maher and wife Joanna, both 38, both from the northern English town of Warrington- and a 45-year-old man from Northern Ireland were released after being questioned on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people.

Wearing a grey prison-issue tracksuit Robinson reportedly showed no emotion as the 43 charges against him were read one by one.

Truck driver Maurice “Mo” Robinson, 25, appeared in a British court via video link and spoke only to confirm his name, address and birthdate. Picture: AP
Truck driver Maurice “Mo” Robinson, 25, appeared in a British court via video link and spoke only to confirm his name, address and birthdate. Picture: AP

Robinson, from County Armagh, Northern Ireland, whose partner is expecting twins, did not enter any pleas and spoke only to confirm his name, address and his date of birth.

At the end of the five-minute hearing he was remanded in custody until November 25, where he will appear at the Old Bailey in London.

Robinson's solicitor Julian Hayes made no application for bail.

Prosecutor Iguyovwe Oghenerouna said the suspect is "involved in a global ring facilitating the movement of large numbers of illegal immigrants into the UK", with his involvement allegedly dating back 10 months to last December.

Mr Oghenerouna added: "A large number of conspirators are still at large."

Writing in a book of condolence on Monday (local time), British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the world had been "shocked by this tragedy".

"The whole nation, and indeed the world had been shocked by this tragedy and the cruelty of the fate that has been suffered by innocent people who were hoping for a better life in this country," Mr Johnson said, who also laid flowers in Grays, east of London, where the truck was found.

"In condemning the callousness of those responsible for this crime, we in the government of the United Kingdom resolve to do everything in our power to bring the perpetrators to justice."

IDENTIFYING VICTIMS

Vietnamese authorities and British detectives have joined forces to piece together the identities of the victims and what led up to the tragedy.

The information swap has kicked off what police believe will be a lengthy identification process that could take several weeks.

A telephone hotline has been set up for families to report a missing person and in London the British ambassador Gareth Ward has held meetings with Vietnamese officials to discuss co-operation in the identification of victims.

A Vietnamese Government spokesman said the 14 names had been sent to the UK via the British Embassy in Hanoi.

Last weekend, officials collected hair and nail samples from grieving families to be used in DNA analysis.

Families also supplied photographs and descriptions of distinguished marks, such as moles or scars.

The names of nine suspected victims feared dead by their families, are: Nguyen Huy Hung, 15, Pham Tra My, 26, Hung Nguyen, 33, Anna Bui Thi Nhung, 19, Nguyen Dinh Tu, 26, Le Van Ha, 30, Vo Ngoc Nam, 28, Joseph Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, and Hoang Van Tiep, 18. With five more said to have been identified by Hanoi police.

Officials in Hanoi said that 28 Vietnamese families from two rural provinces have come forward fearing a family member was among the victims who died.

British government sources reportedly said 18 of those reported missing came from Hghe An province while the other 10 were from Ha Tinh, two poor areas less than 80km apart.

Each of the families told authorities that their loved ones had been in contact up until October 21st when they were attempting to enter the UK illegally with the assistance of people smugglers.

FAMILIES' GRIEF

As the police work with the Vietnamese community to identify the victims, more tragic stories have emerged.

The family of Anna Bui Thi Nhung, reported missing by her family, said the 19-year-old dreamt of working in a London nail salon.

Relatives said she paid an agent £8000 ($A15,000) for "safe passage".

The family of Pham Ti Tra My, 26, who sent a tragic last text to her mum to say she was dying, said she was duped by the people smugglers.

Her father, Pham Van Thin, told CNN: "The smugglers said that this was a … safe route, that people would go by aeroplane, car … if I had known she would go by this route, I would not have let her go."

Pham Thi Tra My, whose family fears she may have died in the Essex lorry deaths. Picture: Family of Pham Tra My
Pham Thi Tra My, whose family fears she may have died in the Essex lorry deaths. Picture: Family of Pham Tra My

The family say they have not heard from her since her haunting message which was sent around the time the container was in transit from Belgium to England, where the grim discovery was made last week.

"I'm sorry, Mum. My path to abroad doesn't succeed. Mum, I love you so much! I'm dying bcoz I can't breath I'm from Nghen, Can Loc, Ha Tinh, Vietnam … I am sorry, Mum"," she wrote.

Pham Thi Tra My in happier times. Picture: Supplied
Pham Thi Tra My in happier times. Picture: Supplied

Hoa Nghiem, of Human Rights Space in Vietnam, said Pham's family were waiting for news.

"(Pham) went to China and planned to go to England via France, a contact with her family told me. Her family is looking for help to identify their daughter," she said.

Nguyen Dinh Gia, the father of 20-year-old Nguyen Dinh Luong, also feared his son was among the container victims.

His son had been living in France and said the journey into the UK would cost £11,000 ($A20,000).

"He often called home but I haven't been able to reach him since the last time we talked last week," he said.

"I told him that he could go to anywhere he wants as long as it's safe. He shouldn't worry about money, I'll take care of it."

20-year-old Nguyen Dinh Luong who is feared among the 39 people found dead in a truck in Britain this week. Picture: Supplied
20-year-old Nguyen Dinh Luong who is feared among the 39 people found dead in a truck in Britain this week. Picture: Supplied

- with staff writers

stephen.drill@news.co.uk