Police have searched two addresses in Northern Ireland overnight in relation to the discovery of 39 bodies inside a refrigerated lorry trailer in Essex. Work is continuing to identify those who died as part of a wide-ranging murder investigation into the UK’s worst such tragedy in almost 20 years.
The two searches on Wednesday night are believed to be linked to the arrest of the driver, named in reports as 25-year-old Mo Robinson, from Portadown, who is being held and questioned on suspicion of murder by Essex police.
Essex police were alerted to the discovery of the bodies of 38 adults and one teenager in a unit at an industrial park in Grays by the ambulance service at 1.40am on Wednesday.
Alongside the murder inquiry, a parallel investigation has begun to examine whether organised crime networks – widely believed to be behind a recent surge in people-smuggling operations seeking to bring migrants to the UK – played a role.
After the discovery, which prompted expressions of horror and demands for justice from politicians and witnesses, the 25-year-old driver was arrested on suspicion of murder.
He was identified by police and community sources as Mo Robinson, from Portadown in County Armagh. It is unclear whether Robinson was aware of any plans to bring people to the UK.
The lorry, which police said was from Bulgaria, was later driven away past a cordon of officers who bowed their heads and removed their hats.
The vehicle had a Carrier refrigeration unit attached to it. Media reports suggested it may have been on and the migrants could have frozen to death in temperatures as low as -25C.
Initially police said the lorry had entered the UK via Holyhead in north Wales. But amid a swirl of information, they later said the trailer – the rear section of the vehicle, containing the bodies – travelled from Zeebrugge into Purfleet, Essex, and arrived in the Thurrock area shortly after 12.30am.
The tractor unit – the cab section at the front in which the driver sits – travelled separately from Northern Ireland. Robinson is believed to have picked up the trailer minutes before the ambulance service was alerted.
On a day of fast-moving developments:
Bulgaria’s foreign ministry said the Scania lorry was registered in Varna, a city on the country’s east coast, under the name of a company owned by an Irish citizen.
The ministry said police had said it was “highly unlikely” the victims were Bulgarians.
Officers from the National Crime Agency (NCA) were brought in to investigate the possible role of gangs.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland said it was supporting the Essex police investigation, while the Irish police, Garda Síochána, said they would “provide every assistance possible”.
In an unrelated incident, nine undocumented migrants were found alive in a lorry on the M20 in Kent and were being dealt with by immigration authorities.
Forensic police dressed in white coveralls were seen going in and out of the vehicle in Grays throughout the day. It remained behind a cordon until shortly before 5pm when it was escorted by a number of police vehicles to nearby Tilbury Docks.
Tributes to the unidentified victims were led by the prime minister, Boris Johnson, who said he was “appalled by this tragic incident”. It is the worst incident of its kind in the UK since the bodies of 58 Chinese people were found in a container in Dover, Kent, in 2000.
Ch Supt Andrew Mariner, of Essex police, said: “This is a tragic incident where a large number of people have lost their lives. Our inquiries are ongoing to establish what has happened. We are in the process of identifying the victims; however, I anticipate that this could be a lengthy process.”
Richard Burnett, the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, said: “The National Crime Agency have been warning that traffickers are getting more sophisticated and ruthless all the time. We’ve had traffickers climb on top of trucks and unbolt the entire door to let people in and then reattach it and it looks like the seal on the door hasn’t been tampered with.”
The Scania lorry’s windscreen carried a sticker reading “Ireland, the ultimate dream”, and a number of dream-catcher pendants were hanging from the centre of the windscreen. The sticker matched one on an identical-looking cab pictured on Robinson’s Facebook page.
The East of England ambulance service declined to elaborate on the circumstances in which it was made aware of the incident, saying only that it was called in the early hours of Wednesday and sent five ambulances, hazardous area response teams and a car from Essex and Herts air ambulance.
Vehicles from the British Red Cross attended the scene at the request of Thurrock council. The charity said its staff and volunteers were providing emotional support to members of the emergency services and others dealing with the tragedy.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, said Home Office immigration officials were working closely with the police to establish what had happened.
The NCA said: “We are aware of this tragic incident which is now the subject of a murder investigation being led by Essex police and we have deployed NCA officers to assist. We are working with partners including Essex police and immigration enforcement to provide specialist support to urgently identify and take action against any organised crime groups who might have played a role in causing these deaths.”
Patel appeared before the home affairs select committee on Wednesday afternoon and signalled that she was willing to consider tougher sentences for human traffickers and people smugglers.
The independent MP John Woodcock asked if Patel would commit to reviewing sentencing guidelines for human trafficking. She replied: “It’s something that I’m very happy to discuss with the Ministry of Justice to see what more we can do.”
Johnson tweeted: “I am receiving regular updates and the Home Office will work closely with Essex police as we establish exactly what has happened.”
Jackie Doyle-Price, MP for the Thurrock seat which includes Grays, said: “People trafficking is a vile and dangerous business. This is a big investigation for Essex police. Let’s hope they bring these murderers to justice.”
The former director-general of immigration enforcement at the Home Office told the BBC the route thought to have been taken by the lorry container was “unusual”.
David Wood said: “It is an unusual route, of course, because Zeebrugge is a freight and container port so not a port where there would be a focus on immigration-type checks and nor would Purfleet be a port where they would be greatly geared up for immigration checks … On the face of it, it would be a pretty clear route for organised criminals to use.”
Additional reporting: Lisa O’Carroll, Rory Carroll and Nazia Parveen