The discovery of the bodies in a refrigerated truck on an industrial estate east of London has shone a spotlight on the illicit global trade in people which sends the poor of Asia, Africa and the Middle East on perilous journeys to the West.
Driver Maurice Robinson appeared in Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court via video link. The 25-year-old, wearing a grey sweatshirt, spoke only to confirm his name and address.
Robinson faces 39 counts of manslaughter as well as charges of conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering, police said.
“This involves a global ring facilitating the movement of a large number of immigrants into the UK,” prosecution lawyer Ogheneruona Mercy Iguyovwe told the court. She said that other suspects were still wanted.
Robinson made no application for bail. He was remanded in custody until Nov. 25 when the case will continue at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, and he will enter a plea.
The driver was arrested shortly after the discovery of the bodies in the early hours of Oct. 23 a few miles from the English port of Purfleet. The container had traveled from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.
“The whole nation and indeed the world has 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,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in a book of condolences.
“We mourn those who have lost their lives. Our thoughts are with their families far away.”
‘IF I COULD TRAVEL BACK IN TIME’
British police initially said the 39 dead were thought to have been Chinese but it later emerged that many were from Vietnam, where communities have been plunged into despair.
The suspected victims hail from Vietnam’s northern rice-growing areas of Nghe An and Ha Tinh, two of the communist-ruled nation’s poorest provinces. Some families prayed their loved ones would still be found safe and sound.
“If I could travel back in time, I wouldn’t have let him go this way,” Hoang Thi Ai, mother of Hoang Van Tiep, 18, who is feared among the dead, told Reuters. “I clean his room every day with the hope that he wasn’t in that deadly truck.”
Police have said very few of the victims were carrying official identification and that they hope to identify the dead through fingerprints, dental records and DNA, as well as photographs from friends and relatives.
The Vietnamese government said Britain had sent dossiers regarding four of the people found in the truck, seeking help in identifying them.
Deputy Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son told reporters: “The ministry of foreign affairs is developing dossiers of possible victims, but until now there have been no grounds to confirm Vietnamese nationals are among the victims.”
‘MY CHILD WAS SCAMMED’
Bui Thi Nhung, 19, is believed by her family to be one of the people found dead in the truck.
Nhung’s family said she first left Nghe An on her journey overseas in August. She went to China first, before eventually making her way to Germany, then Belgium, where they believe she boarded the ill-fated truck.
About 70 percent of Vietnamese trafficking cases in Britain between 2009 and 2016 were for labor exploitation, including cannabis production and work in nail salons, the British government said last year.
Nghe An was identified as home to many victims of human trafficking who end up in Europe, according to a March report by the Pacific Links Foundation, a U.S.-based anti-trafficking organization.
The other province, Ha Tinh, was ravaged by one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters in 2016 when a steel mill owned by Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics contaminated coastal waters, devastating fishing and tourism there.
Tiep’s mother said she believed her son had been tricked into travelling to Britain in the truck since he had made it to France when he was 16 and settled down.
“One day he hastily asked us to raise 100 million dong ($4,300) for his trip,” Ai said, sitting with family members in their house in Dien Chau district of Nghe An province.
“My child was scammed. The guy who helped him organize the journey to the UK said the VIP service was very safe, commuting in the four-seat car - not that container.”