39 immigrants have been found frozen to death in the back of a lorry which came from China, authorities say.
The bodies were discovered by the British driver who dialed 999 after he opened the container to grab his paperwork and found piles of bodies, a close friend of the suspect told MailOnline today.
Police are probing whether the immigrants were moved into the UK by a Northern Ireland-based people-smuggling ring as three properties across the province were raided overnight.
The stowaways – 31 men and eight women including a young adult woman – had traveled 5,000 miles from China to the UK and slowly froze to death in ‘absolutely horrendous’ conditions after they tried to reach Britain on a cargo ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium.
Police are probing whether the victims were being trafficked by criminal gangs operating in the UK who sell them as slaves to work in nail bars, brothels, massage parlors, and restaurants.
Murder detectives in Essex are still interviewing lorry driver Maurice ‘Mo’ Robinson, 25, whose home in Markethill, Co Armagh, was raided last night before a team entered the nearby home he used to share with his parents, who have flown to England overnight to support their son. The third property in Armagh City was also searched this morning.
Police are focussing on whether Robinson knew he was picking up dozens of immigrants from Purfleet docks on Tuesday night amid claims his HGV’s -25c chiller unit, usually carrying biscuits and mushrooms from Ireland, was switched on.
The migrants were huddled inside the super-chilled sound-proofed container for at least 15 hours by the time the door was opened by Mr. Robinson, who called an ambulance from an industrial estate in Thurrock, Essex, at 1.40 am yesterday.
A friend of the murder suspect told MailOnline today: ‘Mo is from the nicest family you could meet. I’m telling you now, he wouldn’t have known those people were in the back.
‘Apparently, he’d parked up at the industrial estate in Essex and had gone to fetch the paperwork from a pocket on the inside of the lorry door. When he opened the container up and saw all the dead bodies, he was absolutely horrified – as anyone would be – and called the ambulance service who in turn alerted the police. I heard the container was refrigerated – the temperature was -25C and the bodies were frozen and had been dead for some time.’
A dozen officers in black uniforms and gloves have been seen on their hands and knees today scouring the area near where the lorry had been parked.
Police have extended their search site, putting up a cordon next to the green barriers already in place as they hunt for clues.
A strong police presence remains at the industrial estate, with several cars parked there and uniformed officers manning the cordon.
Flowers for the victims were also left at the cordon.
Experts yesterday said the temperature inside the refrigerated trailer unit, which is said to usually carry biscuits, might have been as low as -25C (-13F) when they perished. In reality, they could have been inside their metal coffin for much longer. Although paramedics reached the scene minutes after being called out, all they found was a pile of bodies.
Mo Robinson, who is expecting twins with his partner, called his lorry ‘the Polar Express’, having started working for himself around a year ago after leaving a larger hauler firm in Northern Ireland.
CCTV shows Robinson’s truck driving into the industrial estate in Essex at 1.10 am on Wednesday and police arrived around half an hour later. Neither the nationality of the victims nor the origin of the container is currently known.
The truck was removed from the scene yesterday afternoon, with the 39 victims still believed to be inside, as police begin the process of identifying them.
Investigations are ongoing and the latest pictures showed two properties in Northern Ireland being raided by police. A third was searched this afternoon.