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Focus turns to Balkans-based trafficking gangs and potential Irish links after Essex tragedy

Mo Robinson (25) from Armagh was arrested on suspicion of mass murder.

The container lorry where 39 people were found dead inside leaves Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, heading towards Tilbury Docks under police escort.
The container lorry where 39 people were found dead inside leaves Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, heading towards Tilbury Docks under police escort.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

THE FOCUS OF the Essex tragedy where 39 people were found dead in the back of a lorry will centre on Balkan-based trafficking gangs and their potential Irish links as multiple police forces work together to solve the case.

The discovery of the 39 bodies was made in Waterglade Industrial Park with Essex Police saying that the lorry was registered in Bulgaria but entered the UK at Holyhead on Saturday. However, while the lorry’s tractor (the front section) entered from Holyhead, police have since confirmed that the refrigerated container which housed the 39 people had been shipped from Belgium to the UK.

Although the vehicle is registered in Bulgaria, it is owned by an Irish company. However, investigations into this mass death will spread across a number of nations implicated in the tragedy, including Ireland both north and south. 

Arrest

Driver Mo Robinson (25), who is from Armagh, was arrested by police and continues to help them with their investigation. 

Officers in the UK are trying to ascertain if Robinson knew that there were people in the back of his container, and if he is part of a criminal smuggling enterprise.

UK police are also working with their Irish, Dutch and Bulgarian counterparts as they begin an intensive investigation.

A statement from the UK police read: “Originally, we reported that the lorry had travelled into the country through Holyhead on Saturday, 19 October. After further enquiries, we now believe that the trailer travelled from Zeebrugge into Purfleet, and docked in the Thurrock area shortly after 12.30am [Wednesday] morning.

“The tractor unit of the lorry is believed to have originated in Northern Ireland. We believe the lorry and trailer left the port (of Purfleet) shortly after 1.05am.”

Speaking on Wednesday afternoon, Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills said: “In order to ensure we maintain the dignity of the people who sadly lost their lives, we will be moving the lorry and the trailer shortly.”

She said they were being moved to nearby Tilbury Docks so the bodies can be recovered while preserving the dignity of the victims.

“We are yet to identify them and must manage this sensitively with their families,” she added.

Migrant crisis

Bulgaria has been a hub for human trafficking gangs for a number of years, and the Balkan nation has once again been implicated in the practice after 39 people were found dead in the truck in Essex, England, yesterday morning. 

One avenue of investigation for the police forces is the proliferation of human trafficking gangs who have been operating out of Bulgaria and the Balkan region since the migrant crisis began in 2015.

In August 2015, at the peak of Europe’s migration crisis, the bodies of 71 migrants including a baby girl were found piled up in the back of a poultry refrigerator lorry left in Austria.

Investigations later revealed they had been transported along the Balkan migrant route and left to suffocate in the back of the truck after the driver dumped the vehicle near the Hungarian border.

Investigations showed they had been dead for two days, suffocating shortly after being picked up in Hungary, then a key transit country on the Balkan migrant trail.

Four men were jailed for 25 years each over the deaths. Ten other suspects were also found guilty over the deaths and handed prison sentences of up to 12 years

In September of this year, Bulgarian authorities broke up an organised criminal group that allegedly recruited poor people to sell their kidneys for transplants.

Three men and a woman were charged with recruiting kidney donors and connecting them to transplant recipients, specialised prosecution chief Dimitar Petrov told journalists.

The transplants were done in a hospital in neighbouring Turkey with forged papers indicating that the kidney donor and recipient were relatives, he added.

Prosecutors said at least five people had received transplants under the criminal scheme since February 2019, with two more patients and three potential donors still waiting to undergo surgery.

bodies-found-in-lorry-container Police forensics officers at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, after 39 bodies were found inside a lorry on the industrial estate. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

The patients paid between €50,000 and €100,000 for the transplant, prosecutor Siyka Mileva added.

Baby trafficking

Also in September, Greek police said they had broken up a network trafficking babies and even eggs for fertilisation from mainly Bulgarian women, making arrests after raids on private clinics.

In 2011, a Greek court prosecuted 10 Bulgarians and two Greek nationals for having brought 17 pregnant Bulgarian women into the country to sell their babies. 

In June of this year, Bulgarian authorities broke up a major organised crime ring thought to have smuggled thousands of migrants from Afghanistan en route to western Europe.

The gang smuggled the migrants — predominantly boys under the age of 16 — over the Maritsa river bordering Turkey and helped them cross illegally through the forests into Serbia.

While authorities have not given an exact figure of how many people were smuggled, they believe the gang was active since early 2017 and prosecutors said “there were transfers every week” in groups of “30-40 people at a time”.

In total, eight men have been indicted: an Iraqi man alleged to be the ringleader, one Syrian, four Afghans and two Bulgarians. 

Speaking after the raids, deputy chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev said this was “to date the biggest group for migrant trafficking through Bulgaria” with a level of organisation that made it look like “a company for migrant trafficking”.

The migrants paid between €8,000 and €10,000 per person via the so called “hawala” system, an informal network of money transfers conducted through face-to-face transactions that is far more difficult to trace than bank transfers.

The operation came as a result of a bigger Europol crackdown on migrant smuggling gangs in several EU countries in October 2017, through which Bulgarian authorities received information about the ring broken up this week.

Irish reaction

Speaking about the most recent tragedy, the Irish Refugee Council described the Essex incident as “a needless loss of human life”. 

A spokesperson said: “As of yet, little is known about the 39 people found dead in a lorry in Essex, or what fate led them to be in that container. What we do know is that people seeking asylum are often compelled to take similar life threatening journeys because of the clear absence of safe alternatives. As new deals shut down routes, and fences and walls go up, people are finding new ways and methods to reach places of safety.

“If this needless loss of human life is connected to forced migration, it brings into sharp focus the desperate need for safe and legal pathways to protection and migration. Since 2014, 18,898 deaths were registered in the Mediterranean alone. It continues to be the most dangerous crossing in the world. It is very likely that countless other, unrecorded lives have been lost as Europe focuses on stemming migration flows.

bodies-found-in-lorry-container Flowers near the scene in Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, after 39 bodies were found inside a lorry on the industrial estate. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

“Until we see more proactive responses and solutions which open up safe and legal ways for people to escape persecution we will continue to see people making journeys of this nature. No person should find themselves in a situation where they feel that their only choice is to pay smugglers to transport them on dangerous and arduous journeys with no guarantees for their safety or how their journey might end.

39 people are gone. 39 families will grieve their loss.

The discovery is not the worst of its kind in the UK.

The bodies of 58 Chinese people were found in a container at Dover, Kent, 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 and the Dutch lorry driver was jailed for 14 years.

- Additional reporting Press Association

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