Essex Police are still questioning a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland who was arrested on suspicion of murder.
The 39 people found frozen to death in a trailer shipped from Belgium to Britain are all believed to have been Chinese nationals, British police said.
“We have since confirmed that eight of the deceased are women and 31 are men and all are believed to be Chinese nationals,” police said in a statement on Thursday.
The Chinese foreign ministry has confirmed the report, according to the Global Times.
The paper, published by the official People’s Daily newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, said the foreign ministry said “nothing more could be released as of now”.
The announcement has raised speculation that the victims could have been Uighurs, Muslim citizens who live in the west of the country and who are harshly persecuted by the state. There is a large Uighur refugee community in Turkey, and plenty of routes for desperate people to enter Europe from there.
In a statement emailed to Al Jazeera, Beijing’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.”
The only reason why criminal gangs and people traffickers are making so much money out of all of this is that the refugee resettlement programme in the EU is absolutely destroyed
LAURENCE LEE, AL JAZEERA CORRESPONDENT
“The National Crime Agency in this country is noting is that it is now a favoured option by these criminal gangs to put asylum seekers and refugeees inside these refrigerated lorries – it seems to me for the simple and horrific reason that it’s much more difficult for the heat-seeking equipment used by border guards to work if they’re in a fridge,” said Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from London.
“The main focus is that they’re treating this as a criminal investigation – and all the politicians are saying ‘oh, isn’t it awful, these gangs exploiting people in this way’ – which entirely diverts from the point that the only reason why criminal gangs and people traffickers are making so much money out of all of this is that the refugee resettlement programme in the EU is absolutely destroyed.
“There’s this thing called the Dublin regulation under law, which insists a refugee or asylum seeker has to seek asylum in the first EU coiuntry they get into – and if you want to come to the UK, that automatically means you’ll have to get yourself smuggled, otherwise everyone would have to apply for asylum in Greece or Bulgaria or one of these EU border countries.
“And European countries repeatedly break the law by refusing these asylum claims. If that refugee policy under law was obeyed inside the EU, then these criminal gangs wouldn’t make any of this money, and people wouldn’t be dying in the way they are.”
Paramedics and police found the bodies early on Wednesday in a truck container on an industrial estate at Grays, about 20 miles (32 km) east of central London.
Belgian prosecutors confirmed the container was shipped from the port of Zeebrugge on Tuesday.
The tragedy recalls the deaths of 58 migrants in 2000 in a truck in Dover, England, who had undertaken a perilous, months-long journey from China’s southern Fujian province. They were discovered stowed away with a cargo of tomatoes after a ferry ride from Zeebrugge.
Essex Police continue to question a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland over the latest tragedy.
He was arrested on suspicion of murder, the police said, adding that raids had been carried out at three properties in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland police searched properties in the Northern Irish village of Laurelvale, County Armagh, where the driver and his family lived, late on Wednesday, reported the Belfast Telegraph.
The vehicle has been moved to a secure site at nearby Tilbury Docks where the bodies can be recovered and further forensic work undertaken to begin what police said would be the lengthy process of identifying the victims.
The National Crime Agency said it was assisting the investigation and working to “urgently identify and take action against any organised crime groups who have played a role in causing these deaths”.
Shaun Sawyer, the national spokesman for British police on human trafficking, said many thousands of people were seeking to come to the United Kingdom. While they were able to rescue many of those smuggled into the country, Britain was perceived by organised crime as a potentially easy target for traffickers.
“You can’t turn the United Kingdom into a fortress. We have to accept that we have permeable borders,” he told BBC radio.