Bodies found in lorry container at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex | Photo: Picture-alliance/empics/S.Rousseau
Bodies found in lorry container at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex | Photo: Picture-alliance/empics/S.Rousseau

Migrant aid organizations, former victims and politicians have reacted with shock and outrage to the grim discovery of 39 dead bodies inside a truck near London on Wednesday. Italy’s Sant'Egidio called the incident "unacceptable," Germany’s Pro Asyl condemned European policies for being partly responsible for the alleged human trafficking incident.

A day after British authorities discovered 39 bodies inside a truck at an industrial park near London, Italian and German aid organizations expressed their dismay at the incident.

The "tragedy" was "unacceptable for a Europe of human rights," the Italian Christian community of Sant'Egidio said in an online statement. The faith-based organization appealed to EU institutions and countries to "quickly take measures to stem the sorrowful number of deaths of the journeys of hope." Sant'Egidio also likened the discovery to the October 7 shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa, from which at least 20 bodies have been recovered so far.

Sant'Egidio further called for the reopening of regular migration to Europe due to labor demand and "fostering humanitarian corridors" for war refugees. Moreover, the community stressed the need for resettlement within Europe and the need for a "renewed cooperation" with countries of origin. That way, people wouldn’t feel "tempted to offer their lives and destiny to human traffickers," the community said.

'Europe is complicit'

The German pro-immigration advocacy organization Pro Asyl accused the EU of sharing the responsibility for the deaths. Günter Burkhardt, managing director of Pro Asyl, told German broadcaster ZDF: "If [EU politicians] push people into the hands of traffickers and criminals by blocking all routes to Europe, then Europe is complicit."

Pro Asyl is concerned that a hard Brexit could eliminate any possibility for a reunification with family members for refugees in the UK, Burkhardt said.

Drawing a comparison to Turkey’s offensive in northern Syria, Burkhardt said the EU-Turkey deal from 2016 gave Erdogan a "carte blanche to expel the Kurds from Syria," adding that allowing such human rights violations was a "confession of failure" by Europe.

Article 9 of the deal, which Burkhardt referenced, however only says that the "EU and Turkey will work to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria." Burkhardt also calld for the termination of the deal.

Former victims, politicians shocked

Police confirmed Thursday afternoon that the 39 people found dead in a truck in the UK were Chinese nationals. The corpses of 39 adults - 31 men and eight women - were found dead inside a refrigerated container on a truck in the early hours of Wednesday at an industrial park in Grays, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of central London.

Ahmad al-Rashid, who travelled from Syria to the UK in 2015 and spent some of his 55-day journey in the back of a refrigerated truck, echoed the aid organizations' criticism and their call to reopen legal ways to reach Europe.

"In one of the incidents I was kept there for two hours, and... we could not breathe anymore, it was freezing cold, so we started to knock and knock and knock and then the smuggler came and he let us out," al-Rashid said in a separate interview with Britain's Channel 4.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the incident as an "unimaginable tragedy." He said he was appalled by the news and that he was receiving regular updates about the investigation, which was focused on human trafficking.

In an opinion piece for The Guardian, journalist and author Daniel Trilling said one should ask more questions along the lines of "why people would want to travel in that manner at all" or - if there were refugees among the dead - "why they were unable to access their rights elsewhere in Europe".

"By asking these questions, we recognise that the people who suffer at our borders are not simply passive victims, but individuals making decisions and trying to retain control of their lives. Only then will we stop treating this issue as a problem to be ignored or suppressed, and start to talk about how we might reorganise our system around people’s needs," Trilling wrote.

Late Wednesday, meanwhile, British police raided three properties in County Armagh, which are believed to be linked to the alleged truck driver, a 25-year-old man from northern Ireland. Investigators have said the man was arrested on suspicion of murder and remained in custody on Thursday.

Spotlight on human trafficking

The grim discovery has drawn attention to the shadowy people trafficking business and efforts to stem the illegal flow of migrants to Britain. Later on Wednesday, police in Kent, a county in southeast England, said they had discovered nine people stowed away in the back of another truck, after stopping the vehicle on the London-bound side of the M20 motorway.

Britain's National Crime Agency said the number of migrants being smuggled into the UK in containers and trucks had risen in the last year. In May the NCA warned there had been "increasing use of higher risk methods of clandestine entry" to Britain by organised immigration crime gangs.

Echoes of previous fatal journeys

The latest deaths drew comparisons to previous cases of people who perished in trucks. In 2000, the bodies of 58 Chinese immigrants were discovered in a Dutch truck at the southeastern English port of Dover. Two people survived.

In 2014, around 34 Afghan Sikhs were found inside a shipping container at Tilbury port -- next to Grays -- suffering from severe dehydration, hypothermia and lack of air. One man died during the sea crossing from Belgium.

Two men, second right and center rear, accused of being involved in the trafficking of the 71 migrants found dead in a truck in Austria, at a court in Hungary on Saturday Aug. 29, 2015 | Photo: AP Photo/Pablo GorondiAnd in 2015, the bodies of 71 people were found in an abandoned truck on an Austrian motorway. Police suspected the vehicle was part of a Bulgarian-Hungarian human trafficking operation. Earlier this year, the four human traffickers were jailed for life.

People desperate to reach Europe also regularly turn to other risky routes and modes of transportation. One of the less common and extremely dangerous routes taken for the purposes of irregular migration is as a stowaway passenger on an aircraft.

Biggest murder probe since 2005 London bombings

The case of the 39 dead Chinese people found in Grays is the biggest murder probe in Britain since the 2005 terrorist attacks in London that killed 52 people.

According to Essex Police, the container section of the vehicle came by ferry from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge into Purfleet, close to Grays on the River Thames estuary -- a crossing that takes nine to 12 hours.

Map of Grays UK  Credit DWPolice said the vessel docked there at around 12:30 Wednesday morning and the truck left the port area around half an hour later.

Emergency services were called to the Waterglade Industrial Park at around 1:40 in the morning.

Investigators in Belgium have launched their own probe and confirmed Thursday that the container had passed through Zeebrugge, one of the world's biggest and busiest ports.

Police in Britain have said they believe the "tractor unit of the lorry," which drives the vehicle, originated in Northern Ireland. According to Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, it had license plates issued in Bulgaria after it was registered there in 2017 by an Irish citizen.

With material from KNA, AFP, Reuters

 

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