Police are investigating a suspected Irish people-smuggling ring after 39 migrants were found frozen to death in the back of a refrigerated lorry.
One of UK’s biggest murder inquiries was launched yesterday after the bodies, including a teenager, were found in the truck on an Essex industrial estate in south-east England.
The 39 people who were found dead were all Chinese nationals. Eight of the people are women and 31 are men, Essex Police said.
Co Armagh man Mo Robinson (25) was arrested on suspicion of murder, and it later emerged the truck cab had travelled from Ireland, leaving through Dublin Port last Sunday.
Last night, the PSNI carried out searches at two properties in Co Armagh which are linked to the Northern Ireland man.
The parents of Mo Robinson have also flown to England to support their son following his arrest.
The lorry cab is owned by a company based in Co Monaghan but appears to have been registered in Bulgaria. The refrigerated container, in which 38 adults and one teenager were found dead, had not been in Ireland as had earlier been reported.
It is understood to have entered the UK from Belgium – but investigators will examine whether it was destined to be brought here or to another location in the UK.
One of the key areas for the investigation is to establish whether the lorry driver is an innocent party.
Mr Robinson may have alerted the authorities himself, it emerged.
Police will also try to establish if the smugglers had underestimated the time of the journey involved.
UK police were last night probing the links to Bulgaria as it emerged the truck's cab had been registered there in 2017.
The country's foreign ministry said it had been registered in the city of Varna under the name of a company owned by an Irish woman.
The PSNI is supporting Essex Police in its investigation into the murder of 39 people.— Police Service NI (@PoliceServiceNI) October 23, 2019
The area is a cigarette and fuel smuggling route which is known locally to have links to republican gangs.
Gardaí believe the refrigerated container, in which 38 adults and one teenager were found dead in Essex, had not been in Ireland recently, if ever.
But the lorry cab or 'tractor unit' involved in the incident left Dublin Port for Holyhead in the UK on October 20.
Separately the container carrying the people had arrived at Purfleet, close to Tilbury Docks, from Zeebrugge, in Belgium, at 12.30am on Wednesday.
It left the docks at 1.05am on the back of the cab which had entered the UK via Holyhead from Dublin days earlier.
It was brought to an industrial park in Essex where it was opened and the bodies discovered yesterday morning.
Temperatures in the refrigerated truck get as low as -25C and sources said the people are likely to have died from hypothermia.
The driver of the cab, named locally as Mo Robinson (25) from Co Armagh, was arrested on suspicion of murder.
Sources close to the investigation in the UK said that it is "very unlikely" he knew about the plans to smuggle people across borders.
The Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) are leading the probe here. They are liaising with British authorities.
One Irish source said it remained unclear whether the lorry was destined for Ireland or another location in the UK.
The Irish Department of Justice and Equality said it is aware of the "tragic reports" from England, but added the container itself did not pass through Ireland.
"It is understood that the container was collected in the United Kingdom by a truck cab which had come from Ireland," a spokesperson said.
"Garda Síochána and the Irish authorities remain willing to assist in any further investigations in regard to the matter."
Eric Van Duyse, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor's office, said: "The prosecutor has this afternoon launched an investigation into the matter."
He said it would seek to establish whether the trailer travelled through Belgium, adding: "It seems that the lorry has been shipped from the port of Zeebrugge.
"These two elements have to be checked out, for there to be an inquiry, because we have just had information to say that this has happened but the inquiry has to establish whether this has happened or not."
Zeebrugge's harbour master said they found migrants trying to stowaway "every day" at the Belgian port.
Detective Chief Constable Pippa Mills from Essex Police held a press conference at 11.30am at Grays police station, but said it was too early for her to divulge information about the identities and nationalities of the deceased.
"We are yet to identify them and must manage this sensitively with their families," she added. She also said she could not speculate on the route the lorry took.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said the authorities will investigate any suggestion of links to this country.
Mr Varadkar said the discovery was a terrible tragedy.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's Brexit coordinator, linked the deaths to migration and called on the UK and the EU to find a "common approach".
He tweeted: "Free movement of people is not the problem in our Union. The real problem is the lack of safe, legal migration routes leading to 39 deaths. Whatever happens next in Brexit: the EU and UK need a common approach to prevent these tragedies from happening."
Verona Murphy, president of the Irish Road Haulage Association, said it reflected the dangers facing migrants.
"I am shocked and saddened to hear of the level of loss of human life in such tragic circumstances," she said. "I'd like to take this opportunity to remind our members to ensure that their drivers carry out their vehicle checks with utmost vigilance, in circumstances where they are travelling by ferry, at every appropriate opportunity.
"We do not yet know the details of how this container was transported and by what route and no assumptions can be made.
"However, the potentially horrendous consequences for migrants attempting to stow away on passing vehicles must be kept in mind, as well as the safety of drivers, at all times.
"It is a difficult part of our job as hauliers but it is a constant risk and can only be dealt with in a vigilant and professional manner."
The Irish Refugee Council (IRC) said that while little is known about the victims in this case, asylum seekers are often forced to risk their lives.
"We do know is that people seeking asylum are often compelled to take similar life threatening journeys because of the clear absence of safe alternatives," said the IRC.
Separately, police found nine people alive in the back of a truck on the M20 motorway in Kent yesterday. They were treated by medics before being passed on to immigration officers.