LONDON — The bodies of 39 people were discovered in a truck in an industrial park east of London early Wednesday, but hours after the discovery, the police said that much about the case remained a mystery, including the identities of the victims, why they were inside and where the vehicle had traveled.
Even as the police warned of a long, complex investigation, it seemed certain that one line of inquiry would be whether this was a case of human trafficking, like several before it that have left a trail of victims across Europe, killed as they were smuggled in trucks.
Officials said they believed the vehicle came from Bulgaria, and entered Britain four days before Wednesday’s horrific discovery.
“This is a tragic incident where a large number of people have lost their lives,” Chief Superintendent Andrew Mariner of the Essex Police said in a statement. “Our enquiries are ongoing to establish what has happened.”
The driver, a 25-year-old-man from Northern Ireland, has been arrested on suspicion of murder. According to the police, it appeared that all but one of the dead, a teenager, were adults, but determining the victims’ identities will be a lengthy process.
The police believe the truck entered Britain at the port of Holyhead in Wales on Saturday. It was discovered on Wednesday more than 300 miles southeast of Holyhead, and near other ports of entry that connect directly to mainland Europe.
Vehicles entering Holyhead typically come from Ireland, but what route the truck took remains unclear, as do the nationalities of those inside.
The police were in the “early stages of what is likely to be a lengthy investigation,” Pippa Mills, the deputy chief constable of Essex Police, said at a news conference, and she appealed for information from the public.
“This is an absolute tragedy and very sad day for Essex Police and the local community,” Ms. Mills said, describing the truck as a “complex scene” that was being examined by experts.
The truck was found at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, in the county of Essex, about 25 miles east of London, the Essex Police said. Officers were called to the site shortly before 1:40 a.m., but all 39 people were pronounced dead at the scene.
Ms. Mills said the police were summoned by the local ambulance service, but she did not know who had alerted the ambulance service.
While the circumstances that led to the deaths remained unclear, if the truck were being used to traffic migrants into Britain, the route would be atypical.
Dave Wood, a former director general of immigration enforcement, said people-smuggling had been virtually unheard-of on the Dublin-to-Holyhead route, raising the prospect that more trucks had made the same journey without the British authorities noticing.
“It’s an unknown route in my experience, so it’s a surprise, as well as tragic,” said Mr. Wood. “Of course, what you must assume, rightly or wrongly, is that this isn’t a one-off. How often is this route being used?”
He said migrants attempting a journey to Britain sometimes flew to Dublin, rather than directly to London, because airport security was looser there. But the British authorities believed those migrants did not typically continue their journeys using the Holyhead ferry, instead traveling onward into Northern Ireland and reaching Great Britain from there.
Mr. Wood said it could take a long time to identify the victims, given the likelihood that they were not carrying documentation.
Seamus Leheny, Northern Ireland policy manager for the Freight Transport Association, agreed in an interview with the Press Association news agency that the Dublin-Holyhead route would be “unorthodox.”
But he suggested that as security checks had increased at ports like Dover and Calais, some smugglers might see advantages in traveling from the French ports of Cherbourg or Roscoff to the Irish port of Rosslare, and then making their way to Britain via Holyhead.
A spokesman for Ireland’s national police service said the agency was monitoring the investigation and would “provide every assistance possible.”
Leo Varadkar, the prime minister of Ireland, described the deaths in as “a real, terrible and human tragedy,” but noted that the circumstances remained unclear. “We’ll carry out any investigations that are necessary if it’s established that the truck did pass through Ireland,” he told fellow lawmakers.
A spokesman for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had no immediate comment but was working with the British authorities.
There have been a string of tragedies involving migrants and laborers being smuggled across Europe in trucks. In 2015, the decomposing bodies of 71 migrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan were discovered in a truck abandoned on the side of an Austrian highway, one of several such cases in the country. Four men were later convicted and imprisoned for the deaths.
In 2000, 58 Chinese migrants were found suffocated in a truck in Dover, in southeastern England, after crossing from mainland Europe. The driver of that truck, who was Dutch, was eventually sentenced to 14 years in prison for manslaughter and conspiracy to smuggle illegal immigrants.
As details of the grisly discovery in Essex were emerging, the news drew outrage and horror from many in Britain, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Priti Patel, the British cabinet minister responsible for policing and immigration, said she was “shocked & saddened by this utterly tragic incident” in a tweet that was quickly met with anger from fellow Britons.
Ms. Patel has been a vocal proponent of greater immigration enforcement, promising in a speech at the Conservative Party conference this summer that once Britain had left the European Union, she would end free movement “once and for all.”
Satbir Singh, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a British charity focused on immigrants’ rights, said in a statement that he was “horrified” by the news and that “the ultimate responsibility for these deaths lies with government policy which has deliberately closed down safe and legal routes into Britain.”
“We need more than empty expressions of shock and sadness from Priti Patel and Boris Johnson,” he said, adding: “People move, they always have and they always will. Nobody should have to risk their lives to do so.”
The industrial park is a short drive from the busy Dartford Crossing, where the main freeway encircling London passes under and over the River Thames. A local resident, Paige Wade, described to the Press Association seeing police tape cordoning off the entrance to the industrial park as she drove home from work at around 4:15 a.m.
“I knew it was serious because of how many police cars and ambulances were there, but the police had parked their cars across the whole access of the road so you couldn’t see anything,” she said. “There’s always lorries around there as they park up there for the night.”
By midday on Wednesday, several police officers guarded the cordoned off area on Eastern Avenue, which was sealed off with fences covered with green tarpaulin.
Britain has long been a destination for migrants, and smugglers have often used the crossings over the English Channel to traffic people into the country.
Most covert transport methods for migrants pose significant risks to their safety, according to Britain’s National Crime Agency, and most travel in lorries or other commercial vehicles transported by rail or ferry, commercial shipping containers and small boats. Organized gangs frequently smuggle people in hard-sided trucks — similar to the one found in Essex — while opportunist smuggling tends to be in soft-sided trucks.
The agency had earlier acknowledged that the length of the Britain’s coastline and the sheer volume of passengers and freight entering the country make identifying illegal migration “a significant challenge.”
Just days before the discovery in Essex, five people were arrested, including four men in Britain, after 13 migrants including a child were discovered in a cattle truck in Calais, en route to Britain.
Elian Peltier contributed reporting from Grays, England, and Benjamin Mueller from London.
Orignially published in NYT.