In late October, the world reeled in shock when news hit that 39 corpses were found in a refrigerated truck trailer about 20 miles east of London.
The victims included eight women and 31 males, two of whom were as young as 15 years old. All 39 were Vietnamese nationals who’d taken a long, expensive, risky—and in this case, fatal—trip in order to escape their homeland’s grinding poverty and find employment in England.
It was initially reported that all the corpses were frozen solid. Since temperatures in refrigerated trailers can reach as low as -13°F, it was initially thought that they’d all frozen to death, although experts now belief suffocation was what originally killed them. They are all believed to have died at least 12 hours before arriving in England from Belgium.
English Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered his condolences:
The whole nation, and indeed the world had 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.
“I AM DYING BECAUSE I CAN’T BREATHE”
The parents of a 26-year-old girl named Pham Thi Tra My lived in a poverty-stricken area of northern Vietnam, a country where the nominal per-capita income is a mere $2,740 per year. They had mortgaged their house and paid criminal gangs nearly $39,000—the equivalent of nearly fifteen years’ income for the average Vietnamese person—to smuggle their daughter safely from Vietnam to England.
He father says she’d begged them to finance her trip, telling them:
I’m thinking about the family and I love you both, so I have to go. Please, Dad and Mom, borrow the money for me so I can travel. Give me the opportunity to pay the debt for my family.
Early on the morning of October 23, hours before her frozen carcass was found among all the others, her parents received a heartbreaking final text from her:
Mom, I love you and Dad so much! I’m dying because I can’t breathe. I’m sorry, Mom, my path abroad didn’t succeed.
Her mother sent her a frantic text:
Child, where are you now? I’m very worried and tired. I love you and feel sorry for you.
Then, after learning that her daughter had died in the quest to find a better life abroad, her grief-stricken mother cried in front of reporters as she said, “I wouldn’t have let you go. I hadn’t known it would be such a risk.”
THE DRIVER PASSED OUT WHEN HE OPENED THE TRAILER AND SAW THE FROZEN BODIES
Sources say that the truck left Ireland for Wales on October 16, then crossed over to Calais in France. Over the next five days it shuttled between cities in Belgium and France, finally crossing back over into the UK on October 23.
It is unclear when the migrants entered the trailer, but according to a Belgian prosecutor, when Customs officials examined the truck, the refrigerated trailer had not been switched on and the driver declared that his cargo consisted entirely of “biscuits.”
According to the mayor of the Belgian town from which the truck set sail on its final ferry ride:
It proves once again how the human traffickers work. The trailer is hermetically sealed. No heat is allowed in to keep the products at the same temperature. If you end up in such a box with 39 people, you’re going to die.
According to a friend of driver Maurice Robinson, on the morning of October 23 when Robinson opened the trailer doors to fetch some papers and discovered heaps of dead bodies, he fainted briefly before recovering and calling police:
When he opened the container up and saw all the dead bodies, he was absolutely horrified—as anyone would be—and called the ambulance service who in turn alerted the police. I heard the container was refrigerated—the temperature was -25 degrees and the bodies were frozen and had been dead for some time.
AN IRISH CRIMINAL GANG INVOLVED IN SMUGGLING MIGRANTS
Robinson, 25, was arrested and charged with manslaughter of the 39 victims in addition to people trafficking and immigration offenses. When he initially appeared in court, prosecutors alleged he is part of a “global ring facilitating the movement of a large number of illegal immigrants into the UK.” Last week, without addressing his manslaughter charges, Robinson pleaded guilty to conspiring with others to commit illegal immigration offenses.
The alleged leader of the gang, 40-year-old Ronan Hughes from Armagh in Northern Ireland, phone police shortly after the container deaths had been discovered to tell them that Robinson had no knowledge that he had been transporting human bodies. Hughes, who is reported to have leased the trailer in which the bodies were found, was convicted in 2009 of smuggling six million cigarettes into the UK. He has yet to be arrested, and when a reporter from a prominent British newspaper approached him on the streets of his hometown, Hughes reportedly yelled, “Get off my fucking street, you cheeky bastard” at him.
THE VIETNAMESE SIDE OF THE CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE
Vietnamese authorities have reportedly arrested 11 people so far in connection with a well-organized criminal enterprise that extorts dirt-poor people who hope to send their loved ones to a more prosperous life far away from their homeland.
Whereas many refugees who flee intolerable conditions via sea are known as “boat people,” economic migrants who allow themselves to be smuggled into foreign countries via truck trailers are known as “box people.”
The syndicate’s mastermind is alleged to be a certain Mr. Truong, who, it is claimed, has made millions from desperate families such as the parents of Pham Thi Tra My, who identified him as the man they’d paid to help transport their daughter safely to England.
Making things even more desperately heartbreaking for the victims’ family members, neither the English nor the Vietnamese governments is willing to help pay to cost to send their loved ones’ bodies back to Vietnam—meaning that not only did dozens of people lose a loved one, they will never have the peace of mind that comes with a proper burial.
THIS WASN’T THE FIRST TIME
• In 2008, 58 Chinese nationals died in truck trailer on a ferry from Belgium to England.
• In 2014, a dead Afghan migrant was found in a shipping container along with 34 living Afghans.
• In 2015, two dead migrants were found in a wooden crate sent from Italy to England.
• In 2016, an 18-year-old migrant was crushed to death while desperately hanging to the bottom of a truck trailer in England.
• Also in 2016, a corpse was found in the back of a truck trailer which had traveled to England from France.