Police in southeastern England launched a murder investigation after 39 people were found dead early Wednesday inside a large cargo truck that authorities believe was registered in Bulgaria and came into the country via Ireland.
The truck, which British police said entered the U.K. on Saturday via the Welsh port of Holyhead, was found across the country at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, a town 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of London on the River Thames.
Police did not formally tie the deaths to human trafficking but a link was assumed because of the way the victims were crammed into the truck’s container. The truck’s apparently circuitous route into and around Britain also raised suspicions among shipping experts.
A 25-year-old-man from Northern Ireland who was driving the truck was arrested on suspicion of murder, police said. He has not been charged or identified.
“To put 39 people into a locked metal container shows a contempt for human life that is evil,” lawmaker Jackie Doyle-Price, who represents the region in parliament, told Parliament.
Police were called to the truck at 1:40 a.m., alerted by ambulance workers, but it was unclear how the workers heard of the tragedy.
“This is a tragic incident where a large number of people have lost their lives. Our enquiries are ongoing to establish what has happened,” Essex Police Chief Superintendent Andrew Mariner told reporters at a press conference. “We are in the process of identifying the victims, however I anticipate that this could be a lengthy process.”
“All such traders in human beings should be hunted down and brought to justice,” he said.
Smaller numbers of migrants have occasionally been found dead in trucks in Britain in recent years.
Bulgarian authorities said they could not yet confirm that the truck had started its journey in Bulgaria but were working closely with British authorities.
He said that choice may have been influenced by increased security and checks in the major English port of Dover and the French port of Calais, which are both on the English Channel.
“People have been saying that security and checks have been increased at places like Dover and Calais, so it might be seen as an easier way to get,” Leheny said. “It’s a long way around and it’ll add an extra day to the journey.”
The truck then traveled by road across Britain to Grays.
Burnett said it is “highly unlikely” the truck would have been subjected to a physical check on that route because those ports have far fewer checks then Dover and Calais.