London: All 39 people found dead in a refrigerated truck container at an industrial estate near London are believed to be Chinese nationals, British police said on Thursday as they continued to question the truck driver on suspicion of murdering the eight women and 31 men.
The bodies were discovered after Essex Police were called to Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays area of Essex, a town 32 km east of London, early on Wednesday. The victims are likely to have frozen to death.
Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, said temperatures in refrigerated trailers could be as low as -25C.
He described conditions for anyone inside as "absolutely horrendous".
A 25-year-old truck driver from County Armagh in Northern Ireland, who was arrested at the site of the discovery on Wednesday, remains in custody as police conducted searches of three properties in his hometown.
"We have since confirmed that eight of the deceased are women and 31 are men and all are believed to be Chinese nationals. We arrested a man on suspicion of murder, who remains in custody, an Essex Police statement said.
"Each of the 39 people must undergo a full coroner's process to establish a cause of death, before we move on to attempting to identify each individual within the trailer. This will be a substantial operation and, at this stage, we cannot estimate how long these procedures will take, it notes.
The UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) said it was working to identify organised crime groups who may have played a part in the case, which is feared to involve an international people smuggling ring.
China's embassy in London said: "We read with heavy heart the reports about the death of 39 people in Essex, England.
"We are in close contact with the British police to seek clarification and confirmation of the relevant reports."
UK police believe the container carrying the people arrived at Purfleet, close to Tilbury Docks in Essex, from Zeebrugge in Belgium on Wednesday. It left the docks soon after on the back of a loading truck registered in Bulgaria, which had entered the UK via Holyhead from Dublin in Ireland four days earlier. Soon after, the police were alerted that the truck was on an industrial estate in nearby in Grays and the bodies were found inside.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the perpetrators of the horrific crime "should be hunted down".
UK home secretary Priti Patel described it as a "truly shocking incident" as she addressed MPs on the incident in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
"What we have seen basically through the actions of these traffickers is the worst of humanity and it is right that we use our law enforcement and all aspects of the law through existing legislation to make sure that justice is served and that the perpetrators are prosecuted," she said.
The Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the Scania truck was registered in Varna, on the east coast of the country, under the name of a company owned by an Irish citizen. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said his country has "no connection" to the lorry beyond its registration and that the vehicle had not entered the country since 2017.
The discovery is among the worst of its kind in the UK since 2000, when the bodies of 58 Chinese people were found in a container at Dover in Kent.