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Truck driver charged with 39 manslaughter counts

The macabre find in an industrial park was a reminder that criminal gangs are still profiting from large-scale trafficking.

LONDON, UK — UK police have charged a truck driver with 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people in connection with 39 deaths in the back of the truck he was driving in southeastern England.

Police say Maurice Robinson, 25, of Craigavon, Northern Ireland is due to appear at Chelmsford Magistrates Court on Monday. He was the first of those arrested to be charged in what is seen as one of the U.K.'s biggest cases of people smuggling.

Four others have been arrested in the case. U.K. police are struggling to identify the victims, who are believed to have come from Asia, and autopsies are being performed. The Vietnamese Embassy in London has set up a hotline for families to call about missing family members.

More Vietnamese families came forward Saturday with information that their relatives may be among the 39 people found dead in the back of a container truck in southeastern England.

British police had initially said they believed the victims were Chinese but have acknowledged this is a "developing picture."

Police say very few identity documents were found on the 39 truck victims. Police say they have met with the Vietnamese ambassador.

A representative for VietHome, a U.K.-based organization of the Vietnamese community, said it sent the pictures of nearly 20 people reported missing to the police.

Police on Friday arrested three people on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people. The 25-year-old driver of the truck remains in custody on suspicion of murder.

In Vietnam, the father of 20-year-old Nguyen Dình Luong feared his son was among the dead.

He told The Associated Press he had not been able to reach him since last week, when he told his father he would join a group in Paris that was trying to reach England.

"He often called home but I haven't been able to reach him since the last time we talked last week," Nguyen Dình Gia said. "I told him that he could go to anywhere he wants as long as it's safe. He shouldn't be worry about money, I'll take care of it."

He said his son left home in central Ha Tinh province to work in Russia in 2017, then on to Ukraine. In April 2018, he arrived in Germany then traveled to France. He told his family that he wanted to go to the U.K.

Luong's older brother, Pham Dình Hai, said that Luong had a tattoo of praying hands on a cross on his right shoulder. The family said they shared the information with local authorities.

The Vietnamese Embassy in London said Friday that it contacted police about a missing woman feared to be one of the dead. An embassy spokesman said it was contacted by a family in Vietnam saying their daughter had been missing since the truck was found.

The BBC reported it had been in contact with six Vietnamese families who feared their relatives are among the victims. Relatives of 26-year-old Pham Tra My told the broadcaster they had been unable to contact her since receiving a text Tuesday night saying she was suffocating.

"I'm so sorry mom and dad....My journey abroad doesn't succeed," she wrote. "Mom, I love you and dad very much. I'm dying because I can't breathe .... Mom, I'm so sorry."

Credit: AP
An aerial view as police forensic officers attend the scene after a truck was found to contain a large number of dead bodies, in Thurock, South England, early Wednesday Oct. 23, 2019. Police in southeastern England said that 39 people were found dead Wednesday inside a truck container believed to have come from Bulgaria. (UK Pool via AP)

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Formally identifying the victims is complicated by the very nature of people smuggling. Bernie Gravett, a former Metropolitan Police officer who now advises the EU on human trafficking, told the BBC that the use of false identification and the sheer numbers of people traveling to Europe complicate such efforts.

"It's a cruel stage for the families, because hundreds if not thousands are currently on those routes, so I appreciate we are getting calls from Vietnam saying my loved one is missing and my loved one may be on that lorry (truck) but they could be on another lorry," he said.

Gravett said that victims will be given fake documents depending on their country of destination.

"Most often they are stripped of all documentation so that when they get to the U.K. then documents are provided relating to this country."

China said it could not yet confirm the victims' nationalities or identities. There was speculation circulating online in Vietnam that the victims may have been traveling on false Chinese passports.

"The police said that they were urgently carrying out the verification work and the identities of the victims cannot be confirmed at present," said Tong Xuejun, a Chinese consular official in London.

"We hope the British side can verify the victims' identities as soon as possible," he said. "What I want to stress is that no matter what their nationalities are, this incident is a huge tragedy which arouses attention of the international community to issues of illegal immigration."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Chinese authorities were also seeking information from police in Belgium, since the shipping container in which the bodies were found was sent to England from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.

British police believe the truck and container took separate journeys before ending up at the industrial park. They say the container traveled by ferry from Zeebrugge to Purfleet, England, where it arrived early Wednesday and was picked up by the truck driver and driven the few miles to Grays.

The truck cab, which is registered in Bulgaria to a company owned by an Irish woman, is believed to have traveled from Northern Ireland to Dublin, where it caught a ferry to Wales, then drove across Britain to pick up the container.

Groups of migrants have repeatedly landed on English shores using small boats to make the risky Channel crossing, and migrants are sometimes found in the back of cars and trucks that disembark from the massive ferries that link France and England.

But Wednesday's macabre find in an industrial park was a reminder that criminal gangs are still profiting from large-scale trafficking.

The tragedy recalls the deaths of 58 Chinese migrants who suffocated in a truck in Dover, England, in 2000 after a perilous, months-long journey from China's southern Fujian province. They were found stowed with a cargo of tomatoes after a ferry ride from Zeebrugge, the same Belgian port featured in the latest tragedy.

In February 2004, 21 Chinese migrants — also from Fujian — who were working as cockle-pickers in Britain drowned when they were caught by treacherous tides in Morecambe Bay in northwest England.

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Dinh reported from Hanoi. Danica Kirka in London contributed.