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“They wanted a better life”: After 39 were found dead in a lorry, Grays is searching for answers

It’s not the first time people have been discovered trapped at Thurrock’s ports, so why is this happening here?

On Eastern Avenue, leading into the Weston Avenue Industrial Estate in Grays, Essex, bouquets and extinguished candles are clustered by the soggy roadside. Plastic rosaries hang on the corner of the road sign, which guides you through this warren of loading bays and warehouses that serve the nearby Purfleet docks.

The avenue is cut off by a police cordon, with tape and large green screens. Lorries and forklift trucks trundle around the surrounding roads.

Residents are leaving flowers for the 39 people found dead in a refrigerated lorry container here in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Believed at first to be Chinese nationals, 31 were men and eight women. The bodies have begun being transferred to a local hospital for post-mortems.

Little is yet known about their journey and identity, but stories from Vietnamese families who fear their relatives were in the trailer have been reported by the BBC, with one woman revealing a text from a relative saying she was suffocating.

The trailer travelled by sea from Zeebrugge in Belgium, where it is thought the container was sealed in the port zone. It arrived at Purfleet ferry terminal in Thurrock – a part of Essex bordering London – where the lorry tractor, which had come through the Irish Sea port of Holyhead from Dublin, picked it up.

Shortly after, emergency services were called to the industrial estate. The lorry driver is being questioned on suspicion of murder, while two people from Warrington in the northwest have been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic.

Usually invisible, the underworld of people smuggling and human trafficking is occasionally exposed in stark tragedy in places like Thurrock – home to multiple ports and docks, in the county with the second longest coastline in England. In August 2014, 35 Afghan Sikhs, 12 of them children, were found in a locked shipping container, one of them dead and the others severely dehydrated and hypothermic, at nearby Tilbury docks in Thurrock.

In June 2000, the bodies of 58 Chinese nationals were found in a shipping container in the port city of Dover. A year later, in Rosslare – home to a sea port in County Wexford, Ireland – a lorry driver discovered 13 people from Turkey, Algeria and Albania who had been in the container for more than five days. Eight, including four children, had suffocated.

Across the continent, a lorry dumped at the side of a motorway in Austria in August 2015 contained the bodies of 71 people, four of them children, from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan being smuggled through Europe.

People smuggling gangs were at the heart of those latter three cases. People put their lives in smugglers’ hands by paying for illegal transportation to the west, whether by lorry or boat, in extremely dangerous circumstances.

Migrants in Dunkirk who have attempted the journey to the UK have described banging on the walls of lorries to alert drivers to their lack of oxygen, and texting them that they are suffocating, according to BBC reports.

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“These lorries are so easy to get into,” says Rob Watson, a 53-year-old Essex lorry driver near the site. He just transports pallets around Essex now, but used to do other journeys.

“They get in through curtain siders, or strap themselves to the bottom. I’ve seen a lot of people jump out of lorries on M25, I can tell you.”

Having been in this industry since he was 18, Watson observes that the stowaway situation is “getting worse”.

“People just really want to get into this country for whatever reason, I have no idea why, there’s lots of different reasons, maybe we’re a soft touch,” he shrugs. “I don’t know what an easy solution would be – perhaps it’s easier just to let them in.”

In a nearby pallet yard, Rhys Griffiths, 28, a labourer who’s worked around here for eight years, says he’s “seen people arrested in the backs of lorries” and has heard of “illegal immigrants” being found, but has “never seen this kind of thing, never in my work”, he says of the 39 deaths. “I’ve seen it a few times, but no one’s ever died.”

“It’s absolutely terrible,” he says. “I’m disgusted by it, I just didn’t believe it.” He believes there should be “tighter security” for lorries and “better checks” of their cargo.

Another man, who is on his cigarette break from repairing vehicles across the road from the site, expresses sympathy for the lorry driver who has been arrested. Preferring not to be named, he calls the tragedy a “surprise”, and says he’s “never heard of anything like it” before around here.

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Yet there is something about these east coast ports that are “ideally suited” to organised crime like this, suggests Nick Alston, who served as Essex’s first ever Police and Crime Commissioner in 2012-2016 as a Conservative, and now chairs the Policing Institute for the Eastern Region at Anglia Ruskin University.

“Purfleet is immediately adjacent to the M25, you’re on the M25 within minutes from Purfleet, there’s vast amounts of container traffic on the roads and on rails and in the ports, and very close to London,” he tells me.

“It’s a really extensive area of road networks and lorry parks and light industrial parks where this activity has been known to go on – quite a wide range of criminality – over many years. Unfortunately, it’s ideally suited to these purposes.”

Alston argues that stretched resourcing for the Border Force and other national agencies is a factor in tragedies like this. He lists the two international airports, the huge new DP World London Gateway port, Tilbury docks, Purfleet, Harwich and Parkeston as entry points to the area.

“For a force like Essex, which was one of the least well-funded police forces in the country when I was there, the pressures – even though it’s not chiefly a policing responsibility, it’s the Border Force and Immigration, are obvious,” he says. “The opportunities for people smuggling and smuggling other commodities are extensive, and without question stretches the capacity and capabilities of the Border Force.”

A Border Force inspection report on east coast seaports from 2016 warned of the dangers of people being trapped inside lorry containers, and another in 2018 referred to stretched resources. The National Crime Agency has highlighted the risks of people-smuggling in this way repeatedly in the past few years.

While the Conservatives are committing to 20,000 new police officers, Alston believes their resourcing is misplaced. “None of the first 6,000 are going into any of the national teams, whether it’s the National Crime Agency, or any of the others,” he says.

“We do need a bit of a public debate about where the priorities for resourcing and policing should be. Of course I support increased police funding, but that money must be spent where it’s going to address the greatest harms, and they’re not necessarily just crimes on the streets that we see.”

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Over hot chocolate in the town of Grays, a 20-minute bus ride from the incident, a Labour councillor called Victoria Holloway – who grew up here, and has represented the ward where the bodies were found for over eight years – stresses that this tragedy isn’t exclusive to Thurrock.

“This isn’t just happening here,” she says. “People are losing their lives in this way every day –all over the world, sadly, people are being transported by unscrupulous human traffickers who are selling a dream, and it’s a lie. This isn’t a unique situation – we only see a little glimpse of what it is.”

Holloway calls Thurrock’s port industry “integral to everyday lives” here.

“HGVs at ports, trade coming in and out is something every resident in Thurrock lives with and is aware of. We know what our significance is,” she says. “From a ports point of view, not being an expert, I think we’re probably not getting the security we should be getting – they’re smaller hubs, especially the one in Purfleet. It is really important when we know human trafficking is so prevalent that we ensure security at our ports is really high, to ensure people’s lives are saved.”

Why here, though, of all the UK’s ports?

The Conservative MP for Thurrock since 2010, Jackie Doyle-Price, tells me the demolition of the Calais refugee camp since 2016 has changed migrant routes, away from the Dover-Calais connection to Belgium.

She has been told that “we were seeing a lot more clandestines coming from routes starting from Zeebrugge, and finding them when they get here, since we started to really clamp down” on Calais.

“One of the difficulties we’ve had is obviously we really broke the issue in Calais, where they were coming from historically, which has just displaced migrants to other routes, in particular to Zeebrugge. So we need to do in Zeebrugge what we did in Calais,” she says.

Doyle-Price, who recalls the Afghan Sikhs found in a shipping container at Tilbury dock five years ago, says she was “horrified, but equally not shocked” when she heard the latest news.

“Frankly, people are getting into containers every day of the week trying to get to this country and it was only a matter of time,” she says. “Because when someone’s locked in an airless container to undertake a crossing that’s a number of hours, essentially it’s Russian roulette. And on this occasion, it’s ended in tragedy.

She believes the solution lies in international cooperation, rather than domestic policy. “The fact is Britain’s a great country and people are always going to want to come here, so there are some very, very bad people who will make money out of people’s hope,” she says.

“They put these people in containers, they don’t care if they live or die, as long as they’re making money – it’s disgusting, and we need to do more internationally to tackle it.”

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Residents of Thurrock have been holding vigils, lighting candles in the parish church, and queuing up to write their condolences in a book at the local council building to remember the dead.

One woman called Ding Ding, who has just finished writing her message in English and Mandarin, feels both “responsibility and emotion” today – “writing in the book is the least I can do”.

Twelve years ago, she moved from China to the UK as a photojournalism student. She now works for a company that has developments in Purfleet, establishing UK and China relationships.

“When I came to this country, people would ask me questions about the cockle pickers,” she tells me, referring to the horrific case of 23 Chinese illegal immigrant labourers who drowned at Morecambe Bay in the incoming tide while picking cockles in 2004. She also recalls being asked about the 58 people from China found dead at Dover in 2000.

“Now, 19 years later, I’m here for a similar event, with [victims] from my nation, and the world hasn’t changed,” she says, swallowing back tears. “I made a lot of effort to be here, I love this country, and they wanted a better life but they didn’t have other option.”

Back at the police cordon, a man in a suit walks up to the blue and white tape with two bunches of flowers – white and yellow carnations. His name is Yuqi Chen, and he is staying 15 minutes away from the scene, on business from London. He moved to the UK from China nine years ago.

“I feel really sad,” he tells me. “And to know that ten years ago, there was a similar issue. I saw that it was Chinese people, and I don’t know if that’s confirmed yet. But anyway, there are 39 dead, and we are human.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.