LONDON – A UK court on Monday remanded in custody a truck driver over the deaths of 39 Asian migrants he had been smuggling in a human trafficking case that has horrified Britain and sparked a desperate search for their country of origin.
Prosecutors accused Maurice Robinson – a 25-year-old from Northern Ireland known as Mo – of being part of a “global ring” that conspired in illegal migration on a mass scale.
The eight women and 31 men found Wednesday in a refrigerated container that entered Britain from Ireland after being transported by ferry from Belgium were originally identified as Chinese.
But several Vietnamese families have since said they feared their relatives were among the dead.
“This trade is a blight in the modern world,” interior minister Priti Patel said as she updated parliament on Britain’s largest murder probe since the 2005 Islamist extremist suicide bombings that killed 52 people in London.
“This is one of the most pressing issues for the UK, but also for all our international partners,” she said.
“We must be ruthless now in our response.”
Robinson only identified himself and made no statement in a brief video link appearance at a court in the southeast English city of Chelmsford.
He has been scheduled to enter a plea at the Old Bailey – the Central Criminal Court in London – on 25 November.
The transnational case will involve security agencies across Europe and stretch across the poorest regions of Vietnam and possibly other parts of Asia.
“This is going to be a long and meticulous investigation… that could stretch half-way across the world,” Patel said.
The victims’ “nationalities yet, at this stage, have not been confirmed,” she added.
UK authorities arrested another man wanted in the case on Saturday in Dublin. Three others detained earlier have been released on bail.
The case has cast a new light on the extreme dangers facing illegal migrants seeking better lives.
Hundreds of people from destitute and conflict-riven regions of Africa and Asia have died each year in the past decade trying to reach Europe.
The identification process of the ones whose bodies were found in the cargo of a truck parked on the industrial outskirts of London has been grim.
Officials began collecting DNA samples from families in the impoverished provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh in central Vietnam from where most of the suspected victims came.
Local media reported that as many as 24 of the victims could be Vietnamese.
The investigation is being complicated further because migrants who put their wellbeing in smugglers’ hands are often provided with false identity papers.
“The UK side has sent four sets of dossiers related to the Essex lorry deaths… for verification coordination,” Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son said.
Vietnamese authorities have collected hair and blood samples from several families who reported their loved ones as missing.
The horrific circumstances of the case have helped briefly shift the raging Brexit crisis off the front pages and refocus attention on Britain’s border protection and migration policies.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson campaigned for stronger frontiers while pushing Britain to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum.
Security analysts say that added scrutiny has forced smugglers to take ever greater risks and make their attempts to enter Britain through less monitored ports further away from London.
Johnson signed a book of condolence Monday and laid flowers in the cargo transit area east of London where the truck was found.
He called the death an “unimaginable tragedy” last week but has otherwise refrained from comment.
Central Vietnam has long been a source of illegal migration to Britain for people seeking better lives.
Vietnamese migrants often work illegally in nail bars or cannabis farms after becoming heavily indebted to smugglers.