“Horrified, but not shocked”: how 39 deaths exposed a cruel underworld in an Essex town

“These lorries are so easy to get into,” says Rob Watson, a 53-year-old who has been driving them since he was 18. “I’ve seen a lot of people jump out of lorries on the M25.”

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Lorries are part of everyday life in Thurrock, the Essex borough squeezed between London and its leafier county neighbours. From Tilbury docks to the port of Purfleet, England’s second longest county coastline is studded with several entry points for international cargo.

This normally just causes traffic trouble for the locals. But every now and then Britain’s port-sides expose a cruel underworld of people smuggling and human trafficking. On Wednesday 23 October, 39 people were found dead in a refrigerated lorry container in an industrial estate in Grays, near Purfleet.

Visiting Grays two days after the bodies were discovered, I saw residents lay flowers on the roadside close to the warren of loading bays and warehouses that serve the nearby docks.

The victims were first identified as Chinese nationals, but attention has switched to Vietnam. The trailer was shipped from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet ferry terminal; a lorry, which was driven separately from Dublin, then picked it up. The driver has since been charged with 39 counts of manslaughter.

This is not the first such incident. In 2014, 35 Afghan Sikhs, including 13 children and one dead man, were found in a locked shipping container at Tilbury. In 2000, 58 Chinese nationals were found dead in a shipping container at Dover. A year later in the Irish seaport of Rosslare 13 people from Turkey, Algeria and Albania were discovered in a container. Eight of them, including four children, had suffocated.

“These lorries are so easy to get into,” says Rob Watson, a 53-year-old Essex lorry driver who was parked near the Grays industrial estate when I spoke to him. “They get in through curtain siders, or strap themselves to the bottom. I’ve seen a lot of people jump out of lorries on the M25.”

A driver since he was 18, Watson says the situation is “getting worse” with stowaways. “People really want to get into this country, I have no idea why, there’s lots of different reasons. Maybe we’re a soft touch,” he shrugs. “Perhaps it’s easier just to let them in.”

In a neighbouring pallet yard, Rhys Griffiths, a labourer who has worked in Grays for the past eight years, says he has “seen people arrested in the backs of lorries” and “illegal immigrants” being discovered. “I’ve seen it a few times, but no one’s ever died.”

East-coast ports are “ideally suited” to organised crime such as people smuggling, says Nick Alston, who was Essex’s first Police and Crime Commissioner from 2012-16.

“Purfleet is adjacent to the M25, there’s vast container traffic and it’s close to London,” he told me. “A wide range of criminality has been known to go on over many years… The opportunities for people smuggling are extensive and stretch the Border Force.” Both the Border Force and the National Crime Agency (NCA) have highlighted the risks of people being smuggled in containers in recent years.

Sitting at a picnic bench in a playground, with Tilbury dock’s cranes looming on the horizon, John Kent, a former Labour Thurrock Council leader between 2010 and 2016, remembers when the container of 35 people was discovered in 2014.

“It is really concerning that five years after what happened in Tilbury with the Afghan Sikhs the same thing has happened again but with more horrific consequences,” he says. “You do have to ask why the warnings from the NCA two years ago haven’t been acted upon.”

For Jackie Doyle-Price, the Conservative MP for Thurrock, the clearance of the Calais refugee camp from 2016 has forced migrants to seek alternative Channel crossings to Dover-Calais.

She was “horrified, but equally not shocked” when she heard of the deaths. “People are getting into containers every day of the week trying to get to this country and it was only a matter of time” before people died, she said.

According to Andrew Wallis, head of the anti-slavery charity Unseen, Vietnamese workers smuggled here are forced to work in cannabis farms, the sex industry, nail bars, restaurants and takeaways.

“Assuming they were Vietnamese, what’s driving them?” he asks. “The initial push is economics or exploitation in their home country… We need to create safe journeys for those seeking asylum or refugee status. In the UK, you can only seek asylum once you land here.”

Thurrock residents lit candles in the parish church and wrote condolences at the council building. One woman, Ding Ding, who wrote her message in English and Mandarin, fought back tears. Twelve years ago, she moved from China to Britain as a student, and now works for a company developing Purfleet.

“When I came to this country, people would ask me questions about the cockle pickers,” she says, referring to the 23 Chinese labourers who drowned at Morecambe Bay in 2004. “Now I’m here for a similar event, the world hasn’t changed,” she swallows. “I made a lot of effort to be here, I love this country, and they wanted a better life, but they didn’t have another option.” 

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

This article appears in the 30 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone