39 found dead in lorry 'were Chinese nationals' - National

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The 39 people who were found dead in the back of a lorry in Essex were Chinese nationals, sources said.

Police are continuing to question a 25-year-old driver from Northern Ireland on suspicion of murder.

The container lorry where 39 people were found dead inside leaves. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

The container lorry where 39 people were found dead inside leaves. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

It is understood that there were men and women discovered in the refrigerated lorry trailer in Grays, Essex, on Wednesday.

Police have searched two addresses in Northern Ireland as the investigation continues. 

The searches in Co Armagh on Wednesday night are believed to be linked to the arrest of the driver, who has been named locally as Mo Robinson, from Portadown.

Councillor Paul Berry said the village of Laurelvale, where the Robinson family live, was in ‘complete shock’.

READ MORE: Murder probe launched after 39 bodies discovered in lorry

Detectives have said the trailer containing the victims arrived at Purfleet from Zeebrugge in Belgium at around 12.30am on Wednesday and the front section to which it was attached, known as the tractor, came from Northern Ireland.

The lorry and trailer left the port at Purfleet shortly after 1.05am and officers were called around 30 minutes later after ambulance staff made the grim discovery at Waterglade Industrial Park in Eastern Avenue in nearby Grays.

Eric Van Duyse, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor's office, said that Brussels had started an investigation into the incident.

He added: ‘We have no idea at the moment how long the lorry spent in Belgium, it could be hours or days, we just don't know.’

The deaths follow warnings from the National Crime Agency (NCA) and the Border Force of the increased risk of people-smuggling via Belgium and into quieter ports such as Purfleet.

The NCA previously said it had a ‘greater focus’ on rising smuggler numbers in Belgium after the closure of a migrant camp, and a Border Force assessment highlighted Zeebrugge as being among ‘key ports of embarkation for clandestine arrivals’.

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The NCA has also warned that criminal networks are suspected to have started targeting quieter ports on the east and south coasts of the UK as well as the main Channel crossing between Calais and Dover.

Speaking on Wednesday afternoon, Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills said the lorry and the container were being moved to nearby Tilbury Docks so the bodies can be recovered while preserving the dignity of the victims.

‘We are yet to identify them and must manage this sensitively with their families,’ she added.

Police have said tracking route used ‘will be a key line of inquiry’.

The Bulgarian ministry of foreign affairs said the truck was registered in Varna in Bulgaria ‘under the name of a company owned by an Irish citizen’.

Police originally thought the lorry had travelled to the UK through Holyhead in north Wales on October 19 but later revealed that the trailer had come directly from the Continent.

A freight ferry service runs from Zeebrugge to Purfleet.

Security checks for people smuggling are believed to be less stringent at both ports than at Calais and Dover.

The discovery comes as the NCA said the number of migrants being smuggled into the UK in containers and lorries has risen in the last year.