LONDON (AP) — All 39 people found dead in a container truck near an English port were Chinese citizens, British police confirmed Thursday as they pressed to investigate one of the country's deadliest cases of people smuggling.
The Essex Police force said 31 men and eight women were found dead in the truck early Wednesday at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, a town 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of London. The force says one victim previously thought to be a teenager was instead a young adult woman.
The 25-year-old truck driver, who is from Northern Ireland, is being questioned on suspicion of attempted murder but has not been charged. Police in Northern Ireland have searched three properties as they sought to piece together the journey of the truck and the victims.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry posted a statement on its social media account saying that Chinese embassy employees in the U.K. were driving to the scene of the crime to aid the investigation.
Britain remains an attractive destination for immigrants, even as the U.K. is negotiating its divorce from the European Union. Upon hearing of the deaths, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed in Parliament on Wednesday that people smugglers would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
The tragedy recalls the deaths of 58 people in 2000 in a truck in Dover, England, who had undertaken a perilous, months-long journey from China's southern Fujian province and were discovered stowed away with a cargo of tomatoes after a ferry ride from Zeebrugge, the same Belgian port used in the latest tragedy.
In February 2004, 21 Chinese migrants — also from Fujian — who were working as cockle-pickers drowned when they were caught out by treacherous tides in Morecambe Bay in northwest England.
Groups of migrants have repeatedly landed on English shores using small boats for the risky Channel crossing, and migrants are sometimes found in the trunks of cars that disembark from the massive ferries that link France and England.
But Wednesday's macabre find in an industrial park was a reminder that criminal gangs are still profiting from large-scale trafficking.
The truck and the trailer with the people inside apparently took separate journeys before ending up at the industrial park. British police said they believe the container went from the port of Zeebrugge to Purfleet, England, where it arrived early Wednesday.
U.K. authorities have warned for several years that people smugglers are turning to Dutch and Belgian ports because of increased security on the busiest trade route between Calais in France and Dover in England.
Britain's National Crime Agency warned in 2016 that people smuggling using containers on ferries was "the highest-priority organized immigration crime threat." The same year, the U.K. Border Force identified Zeebrugge and the Hook of Holland in the Netherlands as key launching points for people trafficking into Britain.
Vintage crime photos from the Daily News
Vintage crime photos from the Daily News
UNITED STATES - MARCH 03: Confessed Slayer Enraged. William Patrick Farrell screams as he lunges toward fotog taking his picture in van outside Police Headquarters. Police say that Farrell, 25, father of two, reenacted for them the slaying of NYU coed Ann Yarrow last month. Farrell, a patient at Bellevue Hosipital twice before, was ordered to Bellevue again. (Photo by Al Amy/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MARCH 25: Leon Liss, Barney Mortillaro, Milton (Shuffles) Goldberg, Louis Liss, Pasquale Chicarelli and gang leader Richard Reese Whittemore (l. to r.) in a police lineup, after they were implicated in a gem holdup on W. 48th St. (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 09: Theodore A. Clement in the back of a police paddy wagon after allegedly shooting a man during a poker game. (Photo by Al Amy/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 20: Isadore Strauss in jail cell at police headquarters after his arrest for murder and robbery in connection with Whittemore gang job. (Photo by Paul Levine/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 04: Abe (Kid Twist) Reles (center) in a police mug shot. (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2000: Liquor store owner Abraham Weissman views the body of stickupman, Otis Mims, whom he shot during an attempted robbery. (Photo by Gary Kagan/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 01: Mass murderer Harry F. Powers, the Butcher of Clarksburg, tells a detective about the details of his grisly murders in Clarksburg, W.Va. (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 19: Nela Bogacki, alias Nella Bogart, madam of the 'Continental call girl ring,' handcuffed to Salema Hontover after being seized by the F.B.I. Both are to be deported for illegal entry. (Photo by Al Amy/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 25: The body of Albert Anastasia - who ran Murder, Inc., a gang of hired killers for organized crime, in the late 1930s - lies on the barbershop floor at the Park Sheraton Hotel, Seventh Avenue and West 55th Street, soon after his murder by two gunmen at 10:20 A.M. (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 20: A manacled LeRoy Luscomb is charged with first degree murder in the killing of his wife with a deer rifle. His wife is on the bed in the rear of the photo., (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) When John Kerr, of 147 W. 84th Street, and Peter Macon, 490 Columbus Avenue, were being booked on a mugging charge at the West 68th St. Precinct today, photographer Phil Grietzer, New York Daily News photographer, drew a bead on the proceedings with his camera. He didn't know the boys had a camera allergy. But he found out when the two, although handcuffed together, came charging at him. Another photographer who doesn't suffer from buck fever, got this picture.
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 16: Driver and bodyguard Thomas Bilotti lies on the street next to car after he and crime boss Paul Castellano were shot to death outside East Side steakhouse. (Photo by Thomas Monaster/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Discover More Like This
BACK TO SLIDE
Raf Casert in Brussels and Ken Moritsugu in Beijing contributed.