UPDATED at 5.00 P.M. EDT on 2019-10-25
State-run Chinese media on Friday blamed human trafficking for the deaths of 39 people, whose bodies were found in a refrigerated container in the United Kingdom on Wednesday, as police announced fresh arrests in the ongoing murder investigation.
In an article titled "Human trafficking feared behind 39 deaths: expert," the Global Times newspaper, a nationalistic tabloid has close ties to ruling Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said Chinese internet users had been devastated by the deaths.
Investigators began work on Friday on the first autopsies on the bodies. All of whom were initially believed to be Chinese nationals, but RFA's Vietnamese Service confirmed on Friday that two young Vietnamese migrants trying to travel from France to England were on the truck.
The bodies were found when ambulances were called to a parked truck in an industrial zone in Grays, east of London, only to find that all 39 victims inside were already dead.
Essex police force said it is beginning the largest-ever murder investigation in its history.
The trailer's movements were traced to its arrival by ferry from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge shortly after midnight. Ambulance crews were called just over an hour later.
The Global Times linked the tragedy to Brexit, citing Renmin University international affairs expert Wang Yiwei as saying: "Some forces think they could have opportunities to enter the U.K. in the chaotic situation of Brexit."
Wang told the paper that "a complete chain of people smuggling," was behind the deaths.
It also quoted a 2016 media report as saying that the price to be smuggled to the U.K. in 2008 was around U.S.$41,000.
"Many Chinese immigrants leave via Fujian and their destinations are usually the U.S., the U.K., Western European countries or Japan," the paper said.
The Chinese Embassy in London said it is in close contact with the British police for updates on the case.
"We read with heavy heart the reports about the death of 39 people in Essex, England," the embassy said in a statement on its website.
"We are in close contact with the British police to seek clarification and confirmation of the relevant reports."
The embassy had sent a team to Essex, but were told that police hadn't yet been able to verify the identities of those who died, it said.
Essex Police said in a statement on Friday that they had arrested a 38-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman from Warrington in the northwestern county of Cheshire on suspicion of 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people.
It said the 25-year-old truck driver remains in custody on suspicion of murder.
"We would continue to ask journalists and those on social media not to speculate of the identities of anyone involved in this investigation," the statement said.
"The first post-mortem examinations will begin today, Friday 25 October," it said, adding that formal identification would follow the report by Her Majesty's coroner [medical examiner].
'Devastation' among Chinese netizens
The Global Times said Chinese internet users "expressed devastation," when the news broke, with media reports garnering more than 610 million views on the social media platform Sina Weibo.
"Net users expressed condolences for the victims and called for a comprehensive investigation," the paper said.
Cases of deaths of smuggled Chinese nationals have included the deaths of 58 Chinese trafficking victims in Dover in 2000, who were found to have come from the southeastern province of Fujian.
In February 2004, 23 trafficked Chinese workers died in unpredictable tides on the sands at Morecambe Bay in northwestern England, after they were taken there to harvest shellfish by a labor gang, whose leaders were later jailed for their manslaughter and for breaking immigration laws.
"The U.K. and other European countries could undoubtedly do more in the face of such tragedy ... pursuing smuggling organizations and the corrupt businesses that use trafficked labor," current affairs commentator Hu Shaojiang said in a commentary broadcast by RFA's Cantonese Service.
"But China, one of the sources of illegal immigration [through trafficking], should also protect its own citizens' lives by implementing policies that ensure that ordinary Chinese can have a place to live and decent jobs in their hometowns," Hu said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson described Wednesday's discovery as an "unimaginable tragedy."
Temperatures in refrigerated trailers can be as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit), and the crossing to Purfleet from Zeebrugge takes nine to 12 hours.
China's 'snakehead' gangs
A Fujian resident surnamed Wang who was trafficked to the U.S. 10 years ago said the "snakehead" gangs are still recruiting people to be taken illegally to the U.S. and Europe.
She said the gangs wanted 500,000 yuan from trafficked workers back in 2004 to go to the U.S., and 21,000 yuan to go to the U.K.
A Fujian resident surnamed Zhuang said there is a "snakehead" recruiter in most villages in a certain area around the districts of Fuqing, Changle and Liangjiang.
"According to my understanding, the person being trafficked calls home when they arrive safely, and the snakehead goes to their family to collect payment," Zhuang said. "There are a lot of risks involved en route, which is why they don't collect payment until they've arrived."
An official who answered the phone at Changle district government in Fujian's provincial capital Fuzhou declined to give any information about whether the trafficking victims had originated there.
Asked if any local officials had been ordered to the U.K. recently, the official said: "I don't know about that ... Don't worry, our public-facing departments will be making announcements as and when there are any new developments."
In telephone interviews to relatives in Vietnam, RFA spoke to the father of one young man and the brother of a young woman, both of who said they were on the ill-fated truck. Comments on social media by a Vietnamese human rights activist, and by the desperate woman to her parents, also confirmed the loss of the 26-year-old woman.
Reuters news agency quoted Vietnam's embassy in London on Friday as saying it had received requests from Vietnamese families asking for help in finding out whether their relatives were among the 39 victims found dead in the back of the truck near London.
Nguyen Dinh Gia from Can Loc, Ha Tinh Province told RFA that he was notified over the phone by a member of the France- based human trafficking ring that his restaurant worker son, Nguyen Dinh Luong, was one of 39 dead in the truck found in coastal Britain on Wednesday.
In a second case, the New York Times quoted a frantic message sent to her family on Tuesday by by Pham Thi Tra My, 26, who had also reached France by way of China and had attempted to get to Britain.
“I’m sorry Mom, my path to abroad didn’t succeed,” she wrote. “Mom, I love you and Dad so much! I’m dying because I can’t breathe.”
RFA reached Pham’s younger brother, Pham Manh Cuong, by telephone on Friday and he confirmed that his sister had gone missing two days earlier while trying to reach Britain and the family has not received any further information.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ma Suet-lan and Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.