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Container tragedy: ‘Victims from Punjab’

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Police launched a homicide investigation on Saturday after the death of one of 35 suspected illegal migrants who were found in a shipping container on board a cargo ferry at the port of Tilbury on the Thames estuary. The stowaways, believed to be 28 adults and seven children, were discovered on board the P&O-owned vessel that had sailed from Zeebrugge in Belgium and arrived at thee Essex port at about 6am. They are believed to be from India, possibly the Punjab region, a Guardian report said.

Superintendent Trevor Roe of Essex police told the Observer that the discovery was unusual. “We do deal with illegal migrants but it’s usually small numbers coming into the country on lorries,” Roe said. “We do not usually see this sort of volume or them coming in via containers. This is quite rare.”

“The discovery has prompted concerns that a sophisticated people-smuggling network is targeting the UK. Roe said British authorities would be working with their Belgian counterparts and Interpol seeking to track the suspected criminal gangs involved in the operation, the Guardian added.

“It is a homicide investigation,” Roe said. “We will be looking for the origin of the gangs or whoever may be involved in this conspiracy to bring these people in this way over to this country. Clearly we need to try to bring them to justice.”

“Staff working at the port were alerted to the migrants’ plight after they heard screaming and banging. Many of those in the container were suffering from dehydration and hypothermia although police said that no survivors were in a life-threatening condition,” the report said.

Natalie Hardy, from P&O Ferries, said the migrants were in a container on board the Norstream, a commercial vessel that carried freight between Zeebrugge and Tilbury. She said the ship had left Zeebrugge on Friday night at 10pm and arrived at Tilbury on Saturday morning carrying 64 containers, 72 trailers and five lorries and drivers.

The East of England Ambulance Service told the Guardian that it was called to the docks at 6.37am. “We sent seven ambulances, two rapid response cars, a patient transport services vehicle, two duty operational managers, two Basics [British Association for Immediate Care] doctors and our hazardous-area response team,” the service said in a statement.

Daniel Gore, of the ambulance service, said the first paramedics arriving at the incident were confronted with a “very difficult scene”.

“Throughout Saturday, Essex police conducted a search of all the containers on the ferry to establish whether any other containers contained smuggled people. The 34 survivors found in the container were taken to Basildon hospital, Whitechapel hospital and Southend hospital. Those taken to Basildon – 11 adults and seven children – were deemed medically fit to be discharged.

Belgian police said the lorry which delivered the container in Zeebrugge has been identified through CCTV footage, but they do not yet have information as to its origins.”

“This is a humanitarian issue and the welfare of these patients is a priority,” said Roe. All the migrants would be questioned when interpreters had been found for them, he added.

“We need to speak to the people in the container, [find out] where they have come from, what their motivation is and who’s involved.”