The container containing the 39 deceased had been on British soil for one hour and 10 minutes when Robinson stopped his tractor unit and his load to call emergency services.

By Ian Horswill


Posted on October 24, 2019

One of the biggest mass murder investigations in the UK’s history has been launched after the bodies of 39 migrants – 38 adults and a teenager – were found frozen in a container on a lorry (tractor unit) in Essex in the UK.

The tractor unit’s driver 25-year-old Mo Robinson, from Portadown in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, has been arrested on the suspicion of murder.

The container, which had been leased from an Irish-registered company, GTR Trailer Rental Solutions, arrived at Purfleet Docks, Essex, close to Tilbury Docks, the principal port in the UK, after a 10-hour journey from Zeebrugge, in Belgium.

Robinson picked up the container (trailer) after travelling through the Republic of Ireland and across the Irish Sea to Holyhead, Wales, from where he drove for at last five-and-a-half hours to Purfleet.

The container had been on British soil for one hour and 10 minutes when Robinson stopped the lorry and its load of humans at Waterglade Industrial Park, Grays, Essex, and is understood to have contacted emergency services after opening the rear door of the container.

In a statement, Essex Police said: “After further inquiries, we now believe that the trailer travelled from Zeebrugge into Purfleet, and docked in the Thurrock area shortly after 12.30am this morning. The tractor unit of the lorry is believed to have originated in Northern Ireland. We believe the lorry and trailer left the port shortly after 1.05am.”

“We were called shortly after 1.40am by our colleagues in the East of England Ambulance Service to reports that, sadly, 39 people had been discovered dead in the container of a lorry at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Eastern Avenue.”

Essex Police Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills said in a statement it could be a lengthy process before the dead are identified.

Like thousands of illegal migrants before them, the 39 are thought to have got inside the container at Zeebrugge, where row after row of metal containers are lined up ready to be shipped to the UK.

Police are trying to establish when the group got inside and if people smugglers found the container for them and then locked the door behind them after they got in.

A former Director-General of Immigration Enforcement at the UK’s Home Office said the route thought to have been taken by the lorry container was “unusual”.

“It is an unusual route, of course, because Zeebrugge is a freight and container port so not a port where there would be a focus on immigration-type checks because that is not what the port is used for, and nor would Purfleet be a port where they would be greatly geared up for immigration checks.

“In terms of migrants wishing to get into the UK, it would be a fairly safe route if it wasn’t for the tragedy that occurred … On the face of it, it would be a pretty clear route for organised criminals to use.”

Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, said: “This tragedy highlights the danger of migrant gangs people-smuggling on lorries.”

He told the PA news agency temperatures in refrigerated units can be as low as minus 25C and described conditions for anyone inside as “absolutely horrendous”.

Four people have died while attempting to cross the English Channel over the past three months, as police crack down on their presence in northern France.

“If you tighten the security measures, people are going to take more dangerous journeys. The security measures in Calais and Dunkirk are getting tougher so people are taking alternative routes. It’s going to continue if they keep making the safer and ‘irregular’ routes more dangerous and more difficult,” Maddy Allen, field manager at Help Refugees, told the Independent.

This is not the worst incidence of people smuggling deaths in the UK. The bodies of 58 Chinese illegal immigrants were found in a container at Dover, Kent, that had arrived from Zeebrugge in 2000. Seven men were jailed by a Dutch court for their role in the human-smuggling operation that led to the young people suffocating. The lorry driver Perry Wacker, from The Netherlands, was jailed for 14 years.