Madrid: The discovery on Wednesday of the 39 bodies in a chiller trailer in the southeast of London has once more shed a light on the murky underworld of human trafficking — and the lengths to which desperate refugees will go to reach the United Kingdom.
As well as the grisly London find, another nine refugees were found in a lorry on the M20 motorway in Kent, a motorway that links the London area with the busy cross-channel ports of southeast England.
With Brexit looming — maybe at the end of this month, maybe in three month’s time — refugees are being urged by their human traffickers to rush now before the United Kingdom tightens its border controls at British ports.
THE TRUCKS AND THE GANGS
Right now, because of the free movement of goods and services across the European Union (EU) and as long as the UK remains a member, there are few if any customs checks on the 10,000 or so lorries that cross the English Channel between Europe and Britain. And that’s why trucks are the preferred method of moving desperate refugees into the UK. That human trafficking trade requires organisation, stealth and wealth — with organised crime gangs pocketing the profits. While the truck itself involved in Wednesday’s case came from Northern Ireland, the trailer where the bodies were found originated in Bulgaria and is believed to have crossed into the UK from Zeebrugge in Belgium.
THE SMALL CHANNEL BOATS
Since January, British and French authorities have been working closely to try and prevent small boats from crossing the English Channel. At its narrowest — and busiest point — it’s just 33km wide.
Since the end of September, French authorities have doubled their patrol boats and deployed sophisticated detection equipment on beaches. They’ve also intensified efforts to tackle criminal gangs through strengthened intelligence sharing — and are aggressively discouraging refugees from making the journey.
TOUGHER POLICING BY UK BORDER FORCE
In September alone, 23 arrests were made around the UK for people smuggling. The arrests, include 11 individuals who are suspected of facilitating illegal crossings of the Channel in small boats.
“The organised crime groups behind the illegal attempts to cross the border, either by land or sea, are putting the lives of vulnerable people in serious danger for their own financial gain,” Steve Dann, Director of Criminal and Financial Investigations at UK Border Force said. “We are determined to put a stop to this illegal activity and disrupting the ruthless criminals who facilitate it is key.”
In recent months, more than 80 people who entered the UK illegally on small boats have been returned to Europe.
THE SCHENGEN ZONE, THE COMMON TRAVEL AREA
In effect, the EU is divided into two separate travel areas — presenting two separate challenges for people smugglers. The main continental bloc is covered by the so-called Schengen zone. Once refugees reach that area — wither by sea across the Mediterranean or overland through the Balkans, they are free to move within those 26 EU nations.
The UK and Ireland share the so-called Common Travel Area — both island physically separated from the continent by bodies of water. And with the UK being perceived as offering more opportunities for refugees, it’s a preferred final destination, with the desperate willing to risk all to get there.
THE BREXIT DEADLINE TO GET TO THE UK
People smugglers are telling migrants that they must enter the UK before the borders shut properly after Brexit.
“When the UK is out of Europe, the borders will be shut properly,” one smuggler told an undercover BBC reporter posing as an Iranian migrant at a camp in Dunkirk. “This jungle will be cleared. They will put everyone in jail.”
And right now, according to British and French authorities, a small boat across the English Channel will cost more than €5,000 (Dh20,400).
OVERLAND, THROUGH THE WESTERN BALKANS
There were nearly 400 detections of refugee crossings recorded on this route in August, Frontex says. Frontex is the EU agency responsible for protecting the bloc’s external borders.
The total for the first eight months reached more than 6,600, 90 per cent above the figure from a year ago.
Nationals of Afghanistan and Iran accounted for the largest share of illegals detected on this route.
THE EASTERN ROUTE FROM TURKEY
According to the latest data from Frontex, some 9,300 refugees were detected in August 2019 on the eastern Mediterranean route. This was nearly three-quarters of the total number of refugees reaching Europe that month — and double from the same month last year due to a large number of boats reaching the Greek islands in eastern Aegean.
In the first eight months of this year, the total number of detections in this region was up 10 per cent from a year ago to more than 38,300.
Afghans have accounted for two of every five migrants detected on this route.
THE WESTERN MEDITERRANEAN ROUTE
According to Frontex, the number of refugees crossing the western Mediterranean in August dropped 43 per cent from the previous month to around 1,600.
The total for the January-August period stood at more than 14,800, around half the figure from the same period of last year.
People from sub-Saharan Africa accounted for the largest number of detected migrants on this route in the first eight months of 2019.
THE CENTRAL MEDITERRANEAN ROUTE
The number of migrants passing through the central Mediterranean in August stood at nearly 1,400, which Frontex says is 8 per cent more than in the previous month.
The total for the first eight months of the year reached nearly 6,600, slightly less than a third of the total from the same period of last year.
Tunisians, Sudanese and Pakistanis were the most represented nationalities on this route in the January-August period.
Migrants killed in transit in United Kingdom:
The number of migrants who die in transit has been recorded by the UN since 2014. Since then, bodies of suspected migrants have been found in trucks or containers in the UK:
2000: 58 Chinese migrants were found suffocated to death in a lorry at Dover.
2014: An Afghan migrant was found dead at Tilbury Docks, Essex. He was in a shipping container, with 34 Afghans who survived.
2015: The bodies of 71 people were found in an abandoned truck on an Austrian motorway. Police suspected the vehicle was part of a Bulgarian-Hungarian human trafficking operation.
2015: Two migrants were found dead in a wooden crateat a warehouse in Staffordshire. The crate had been sent from Italy.
2016: An 18-year-old migrant was crushed while clinging to the underside of a truck in Banbury, Oxfordshire.
2016: A body was found in the back of a truck in Kent, which had travelled from France.
Chinese embassy staff heading to Essex
Chinese embassy staff members were on their way to Essex yesterday to verify reports that 39 people found dead in a truck were its nationals, the Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.
The victims were discovered in a container on the back of a truck in Grays, east of London, on Wednesday, shortly after arriving by ferry from Belgium. The local Essex Police force, which is working with immigration officials, said their initial priority was to try to identify the 39 victims.
The truck was moved Wednesday to a more secure location at nearby Tilbury docks so the bodies could be removed.
British media cited sources as saying on Thursday that the victims, thought to be 38 adults and one teenager, were Chinese nationals. “The staff of the Chinese Embassy in the UK is driving to the scene to verify this situation,” the Chinese foreign ministry said on its Weibo social media account.
“We read with heavy heart the reports about the death of 39 people in Essex, England,” said an unverified Twitter account regularly attributed to China’s UK Ambassador, Liu Xiaoming. “We are in close contact with the British police to seek clarification and confirmation of the relevant reports,” it said.
The shocking discovery comes almost two decades after the bodies of 58 Chinese people were discovered in a Dutch truck at the southeastern English port of Dover. Two others survived.
In 2013, Spanish and French police dismantled a human trafficking ring that smuggled Chinese migrants into Europe and the United States, charging up to €50,000 per person. The smugglers provided false identities and transport to take Chinese citizens to the United States and countries such as Britain, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Ireland and Turkey, police said at the time.