Essex police on Saturday charged the driver of the truck in which 39 bodies were found in an industrial park earlier in the week with manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people.
The refrigerated trailer, found in the industrial estate in Grays, Essex, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, had arrived on a ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium.
Maurice Robinson, who was arrested at the scene on suspicion of murder, is from Northern Ireland. The 25-year-old was also charged with conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering.
Police in the Irish Republic earlier on Saturday arrested another man in his early 20s from Northern Ireland at Dublin Port.
The Garda said that man was arrested over an outstanding warrant in the Irish Republic, but indicated that Essex Police were also interested in speaking to him.
The tractor unit, found with the trailer on Wednesday, entered the UK last Sunday having travelled from Dublin to Holyhead in Wales. Police in Northern Ireland searched three properties there in connection with the investigation early on Thursday.
Earlier on Saturday the police in charge of identifying the victims met Vietnam’s ambassador to the UK and appealed for help, as evidence mounted that many of the 39 dead had travelled from Vietnam.
Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore, of Essex Police, said he was keeping an open mind about the nationalities of those found dead in the trailer. But he acknowledged that the force was getting “a lot of engagement” from Vietnamese people who believed loved ones had been in the trailer.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry said on Saturday that its embassy officials had been in touch with the Home Office and police over the investigation and that they were working jointly to identify the dead. The Vietnamese ambassador visited the scene of the tragedy on Saturday.
Essex Police had initially said that it believed all the 31 men and eight women found dead were Chinese nationals. But it distanced itself from that position on Friday after widespread reporting of texts from Pham Thi Tra My, a 26-year-old woman from Vietnam, reporting to her family that she was suffocating in a container.
VN Express International, a state-owned media outlet, on Saturday reported that 12 more families from Ha Tinh and Nghe An provinces, both in central Vietnam, feared family members had died in the trailer.
DCI Pasmore also said he had met a “facilitator” — apparently a representative of the VietHome website used by the UK’s Vietnamese community — to ask them to put out an appeal for Vietnamese people to make contact. VietHome said that it had forwarded to the police 20 pictures supplied by Vietnamese people in the UK and Vietnam of people that were feared to have been in the trailer.
“I met him [to ask people to] take that leap of faith and please make contact with our team,” DCI Pasmore said of the meeting.
DCI Pasmore said that Essex Police would take no action against anyone who lacked legal immigration status who contacted the force to report concerns about loved ones.
As well as the driver and the man arrested on Saturday, three other people remain under arrest on suspicion of involvement in the deaths. All three are being held on suspicion of conspiracy to smuggle people and manslaughter.
The UK has a substantial Vietnamese community, many of whom arrived in the UK after reaching Hong Kong — then a British territory — as “boat people” from Vietnam in the late 1970s. Groups working on labour abuse and people trafficking report encountering large numbers of Vietnamese people working in poor conditions, particularly in illegal cannabis factories and businesses such as nail bars.
Wednesday’s discovery is the worst mass death of migrants in the UK since 58 Chinese migrants were found suffocated to death in the back of a truck near Dover in 2000.
DCI Pasmore said that all the bodies had been removed from the trailer by Saturday afternoon and that autopsies were under way at a hospital in Chelmsford.