October 25 (Reuters) – China called on Britain on Friday to seek “severe punishment” for those involved in the deaths of 39 people, believed to be Chinese nationals, found in a truck container near London, while British police quizzed the driver on suspicion of murder.
Post-mortem examinations of 11 of the deceased began as police and forensic experts sought to identify the dead, how they had died and who was involved in the suspected human trafficking ring.
Detectives were continuing to quiz the 25-year-old truck driver from Northern Ireland who was arrested after the grim discovery of the bodies in the back of his refrigerated truck on an industrial estate near London in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
He has not been formally identified but a source familiar with the investigation named him as Mo Robinson from the Portadown area of the British province. Detectives will decide later whether to charge him with an offence, release him or ask a court for more time to quiz him.
Late on Thursday, British authorities moved 11 of the victims – 31 men and eight women – to a hospital mortuary from a secure location at docks near to the industrial estate in Grays about 20 miles (30 km) east of London where the bodies were found.
Police have said the process of identifying those who died would take some time while autopsies were carried out to determine how exactly they died.
“This is the largest investigation of its kind Essex Police has ever had to conduct and it is likely to take some considerable time to come to a conclusion,” Essex Chief Constable Ben-Julian Harrington said.
His force has said their priority was ensuring respect and compassion for the victims.
The Chinese Embassy in London said it had sent a team to Essex, and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said police had not yet been able to verify the nationalities of the deceased.
“We hope that the British side can as soon as possible confirm and verify the identities of the victims, ascertain what happened and severely punish criminals involved in the case,” she told a daily news briefing.
For years, illegal immigrants have attempted to reach Britain stowed away in trucks, often from the European mainland. In 2000, 58 Chinese were found dead in a tomato truck at the port of Dover.
China’s Global Times, which is published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said in a Friday editorial that Britain should bear some responsibility for the deaths.
“It is clear that Britain and relevant European countries have not fulfilled their responsibility to protect these people from such a death,” the widely-read tabloid said.
It added that Britain appeared not to have learned its lesson from the Dover incident two decades ago.
“Could the British and European people ask themselves why they have not been able to avoid a similar tragedy … Did they take all the serious remedial action that they could have?” it said.
The focus of the police investigation is on the movement of the trailer prior to its arrival at Purfleet docks near Grays little more than an hour before the bodies were found and who was behind the suspected human trafficking.
Irish company Global Trailer Rentals said it owned the trailer and had rented it out on Oct. 15. The firm said it was unaware of what it was to be used for.
The refrigeration unit had traveled to Britain from Zeebrugge in Belgium and the town’s chairman, Dirk de Fauw, said he believed the victims died in the trailer before it arrived there.
The Times newspaper reported that GPS data showed the container had arrived at the Belgian port at 2.49 p.m. local time on Tuesday before later making the 10-hour trip to Britain.
Police said the cab unit of the truck was driven over from Dublin on Sunday, entering Britain in North Wales. It picked up the trailer in Purfleet shortly after midnight on Wednesday.
The National Crime Agency, which targets serious and organized crime, said it was helping the investigation and working urgently to identify any gangs involved.
The head of the Road Haulage Association said traffickers were “upping their game” and closer cooperation with European nations was needed, although that may be complicated by Britain’s potential exit from the European Union.