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39 Migrants Found Dead in Truck Trailer Near UK Ro/Ro Port

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The Purfleet freight terminal (C.RO Ports)

By The Maritime Executive 2019-10-24 20:27:25

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, the bodies of 39 Chinese nationals were found in a refrigerated truck trailer just outside the Purfleet freight terminal, a ro/ro freight ferry port 18 miles outside of London on the River Thames. UK police have detained the driver and are investigating the circumstances of the shipment, including the possibility that the tragedy may be connected to organized crime. Irish, Chinese and Belgian authorities are participating in the inquiry.

The trailer - a leased unit owned by a company in Ireland - arrived at the port of Zeebrugge for loading at about 1450 hours Tuesday afternoon. Zeebrugge port officials told UK media that they believe that the chance of breaking into a trailer within the port perimeter is unlikely due to surveillance and seal checks. 

The ferry arrived at Purfleet in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Truck driver Mo Robinson, 25, arrived to pick up the trailer at 0105. The bodies were discovered and the police were contacted at 0140. Authorities say that the temperature within the trailer was about -10 Fahrenheit. 

Robinson is a resident of County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and police are examining whether the incident is connected to an organized crime syndicate in the area. Three properties in Armagh have been raided and potential evidence collected, and Robinson is in custody as the case proceeds. 

Authorities had given previous notice that human traffickers would likely operate on this route. The UK National Crime Agency recently warned that Zeebrugge is becoming a hotspot for smugglers pushed out of northern France by tightening security measures. In addition, the closure of the migrant camps at Calais and Dunkirk has made it more likely that migrants will turn to organized smuggling groups to attempt the crossing, the agency warned. In 2016, NCA also cautioned that lower-profile, "less busy" UK freight ports - including Purfleet - could become target destinations. 

The Purfleet terminal and the trailer's departure terminal in Zeebrugge are both operated by a subsidiary of Luxembourg-registered logistics company C.RO Ports. Gary Walker, C.RO Ports CEO, extended his condolences to the families of the victims. “C.RO Ports is deeply saddened by the discovery in Grays, UK, yesterday of a trailer in which 39 people were found dead," he said. “We continue to fully assist UK, Belgian and other law enforcement authorities with their ongoing investigation . . . Our thoughts are with the family and friends of those found yesterday.”

Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, emphasized that UK ports work closely with security agencies to enforce border controls. "People traffickers have adapted their methods in recent years and ports have been working with the UK Border Force and the police to deal with these ever varying risks," Ballantyne said. "Individual UK port operators have close working relationships with the national security agencies and with local authorities. These organizations have a strong presence at our borders and a close working relationship with ports with which they share intelligence."