British police investigating the deaths of 39 people in a refrigerated truck charged the driver on Saturday with manslaughter and people trafficking, as families in Vietnam expressed fear their loved ones were among the dead.
Maurice Robinson was arrested shortly after the bodies of eight women and 31 men were discovered in the truck in an industrial zone in Grays in Essex, south-east England.
The 25-year-old from Northern Ireland was “charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering,” Essex police said.
Three more people are in custody in Britain over the investigation, the country’s largest murder probe since the 2005 London suicide bombings.
A Northern Irish man was also arrested in Dublin on Saturday.
Police initially said the victims – believed to have arrived on a ferry from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge – were Chinese, but retracted this and now many are feared to be Vietnamese.
Vietnam’s ambassador, Tran Ngoc An, visited police investigating the case on Saturday and also spoke on the phone to British interior minister Priti Patel, the embassy said.
In Vietnam, several families said Saturday that their relatives had gone missing on route to Britain, a prime destination for migrants seeking better lives abroad.
All the families come from impoverished and remote corners of central Vietnam, a hotspot for people willing to embark on dangerous journeys in the hope of striking it rich abroad.
Many are smuggled illegally through Russia or China, often owing tens of thousands of dollars to their traffickers and carrying falsified documents, and end up working off the books on cannabis farms or in nail salons.
‘Fell to the ground’
In central Ha Tinh province, the father of 20-year-old Nguyen Dinh Luong said he received a call from a Vietnamese man in the UK this week saying his son had died en route to Britain.
“I fell to the ground when I heard that,” Nguyen Dinh Gia said. “It seemed that he was in the truck with the accident, all of them dead.”
Britain-based community group VietHome said it had received “photos of nearly 20 people reported missing, age 15-45” from Vietnam.
Families of missing Vietnamese migrants on Saturday held vigil and set up makeshift altars in their homes in central Nghe An province, where many of the suspected victims came from, praying for news from missing relatives.
The family of a 26-year-old Vietnamese woman, Pham Thi Tra My, said on Friday they received a chilling text message from her in the hours before she is believed to have died.
“I’m sorry Mom. My path to abroad doesn’t succeed. Mom, I love you so much! I’m dying because I can’t breathe,” she said in the message confirmed by her brother Pham Manh Cuong.
Their home province of Ha Tinh was devastated by a massive fish kill in 2016 when a Taiwanese steel firm dumped toxic waste into the ocean.
Migrants can pay smugglers up to US$40,000 for the dangerous journey, an enormous sum in Vietnam, where the annual per capita income is about $2,400, according to the World Bank.
The truck’s driver is due in court on Monday.
Among the suspects still in custody is a 38-year-old woman reported to be the registered owner of the truck, and her husband, also 38. They denied any involvement, according to media reports.
“We’ve got to be realistic. We know that … we have people coming into the country, either being trafficked or as asylum seekers,” British police Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore told reporters earlier Saturday.
“It must be clear that criminals – and that’s what we’re dealing with, criminals, murderers – are taking more and more chances with these vulnerable people,” he added.
He appealed to the Vietnamese community in Britain for information, saying his force would take no action against anyone there illegally who came forward to claim a friend or relative.
Pasmore said he had discussed with Vietnam’s ambassador how to fast-track the process of fingerprint identification and DNA testing, but said identification would take time.