THE “horrific” discovery of 39 bodies in a refrigerated lorry container in Essex this week is “a symptom of a deeper problem” — namely, the failure of the government to provide safety to the vulnerable and displaced, church leaders have said.
Police were called by the ambulance services in the early hours of Wednesday of last week, after the bodies of 38 adults and one teenager were found in the container at Waterglade Industrial Park in Eastern Avenue in Grays.
The victims — eight women and 31 men — were Vietnamese, it was reported on Sunday. Earlier reports said that they were Chinese nationals. Formal identification is ongoing.
The driver, Mo Robinson, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, who was arrested on suspicion of murder, appeared in Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court on Monday. He was charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, and money-laundering.
Three other people have been arrested and released on bail. Two brothers, Ronan and Christopher Hughes, from Northern Ireland are wanted on suspicion of manslaughter and people-trafficking.
Police have said that the cab of the lorry entered the UK from Dublin via the Welsh port town of Holyhead, which serves Ireland. The trailer was picked up at Purfleet, on the River Thames, where it had arrived from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. Early reports suggested that the lorry had entered the country from Bulgaria. A spokesman for the Bulgarian foreign affairs ministry told the BBC that the truck had been registered in the country by an Irish national.
The migrants may have been picked up through cities in France and Belgium, on the way, police believe. Some of the suspected victims are reported to have paid up to £30,000 to people smugglers, The Sunday Times reported.
The National Crime Agency has been working to establish if “organised crime groups” were involved. Three properties in Northern Ireland have been raided.
The Area Bishop of Bradwell in Chelmsford diocese, the Rt Revd John Perumbalath, said in a statement on Thursday of last week: “This is really heart-breaking news, and our thoughts and prayers are with all the loved ones and families of those who lost their lives in this tragic way. . .
“This and similar tragedies in the recent past are a symptom of a deeper problem — namely, the failure of the wider human family and governments in providing safety to the most vulnerable and displaced people among us.
“I wish and pray that no one would ever have to undertake a journey to their death like this, and that we, as a global family, learn how to make life safer for everyone.”
The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, has since called on the UK to create a national policy of welcome towards refugees. He wrote in The Observer on Sunday: “There’s a lurking suspicion that if Britain opens the door to more refugees, they will take the jobs of locals and destabilise the country. I think these fears are unfounded. . . There are unnecessarily bureaucratic obstacles in the path of refugees in the UK, holding them back from working when they are raring to go. . .
“Experience tells me the British are not hard-hearted. We just need to turn today’s sentiments of sadness into a national policy of welcome. Becoming people with cool heads and warm hearts.”
The chaplain to the Bishop of Bristol, Canon Dr Martin Gainsborough, said this week: “In the Vietnamese media, the people who have died, or indeed any people who are trafficked, are referred to as ‘straw people’, because their lives are seen ‘as worthless as straw’. . .
“The story as it relates to this particular case, tragic though it is, seems to be less about escaping poverty and more about upward mobility, family values, and societal narrative of success.”
PAThe container lorry in which 39 people were found dead on Wednesday morning, leaves Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, under police escort to go to Tilbury Docks
The acting coordinator of the cross-channel organisation People, not Walls, Ben Bano, said: “Once again we see the result of the combination of smugglers and a system which denies people the right to claim asylum in the UK without attempting dangerous journeys. As well as the effects of the hostile environment we need to remember that the UK has only one per cent of the world’s refugees.”
The director of the Jesuit Refugee Service UK, Sarah Teather, said: “We know very little about the people who lost their lives at this point, but they are someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, father, mother, friend, or neighbour. We pray for those who died and for their families and friends.
“The desperation of those in the container is an indictment of our failure to provide sanctuary to those in flight for their lives. This horrendous tragedy highlights the urgent need for more safe and legal routes to migrate and to seek asylum.
“If the Government wants to ensure this does not happen again, it is not enough to focus only on criminal gangs — it must ensure that those seeking sanctuary in Britain can get here safely. It must build bridges, not walls.”
St Clements, Thurrock, held a service of holy communion “in dedication” to the people who lost their lives, on Thursday evening of last week. A vigil was also held outside the Home Office to “call for urgent action to ensure safe passage” for people fleeing war and poverty.
The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, described the news on twitter as “very distressing”, and urged Christians to pray for the families and people “whose lives are convulsed by these events”.
He said on Thursday evening of last week that churches in Grays and Thurrock had been opening their doors for prayer as the community comes to terms with the news. “It is shocking to imagine the disregard for human life which in all probability led people smugglers and human traffickers to sell them the hope of a better life, yet care nothing for their well-being and safety.
“Modern day slavery, human trafficking, people smuggling, and the fear and desperation that fuels it, is a curse upon our world and a sad indictment of our failure to live peaceably in the world. Today in the Chelmsford diocese we offer our anguished prayer that this happened in one of our communities.
“But I also hope that in offering this prayer we might commit ourselves to being the answer, supporting those who are working hard to combat this crime, and lobbying our political leaders to have much greater regard for the needs of those fleeing poverty and warfare and to develop international policy with our neighbours to build stability and hope in those places in the world where our own importunate actions have sometimes stirred a pot that is now boiling over.”
A report published by the Salvation Army last week, stated that, for the first year, China had become the third commonest country of origin for victims of modern slavery who had used the charity’s support services (News, 18 October). In the past five years, there had been a 429 per cent increase in Chinese nationals accessing the service, it said.
The director for anti-trafficking and modern slavery for the Salvation Army, Major Kathy Betteridge, said: “We are extremely saddened but unfortunately not surprised by the events in Essex. As police continue to establish the true nature of the situation this is a shocking reminder that lives are lost at the hands of perpetrators buying, transporting and selling people for their own gain. The exploitation of people in modern slavery is an horrific crime.
“Often the most vulnerable people in society are targeted and the Salvation Army urges the public to be vigilant — help is available for those who need it. If you think you are a victim, or come into contact with someone you suspect may be a victim, of slavery please contact our 24/7 confidential referral line on 0300 303 8151. If there is immediate danger, contact the police.”
Read more on the story from our columnist Paul Vallely