A Vietnamese woman feared to be among the 39 people found dead in the back of a refrigerated truck texted her mother to tell her: “I’m dying because I can’t breathe.”
Pham Thi Tra My paid $50,200 to be smuggled to Britain from her home in one of Vietnam’s poorest provinces, but her family now believe her three-week journey has ended in tragedy.
It’s feared there are a number of Vietnamese nationals among the victims, sources close to the investigation confirmed to The Daily Telegraph, despite police originally saying that they believed the migrants were Chinese.
The family of a Vietnamese man, Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, said they were also concerned that he may have been on the truck as they had not heard from him since Tuesday.
One community group in the U.K. said it had been contacted by at least 10 families, while an NGO based in Vietnam said seven sets of relatives had been in touch in an attempt to discover whether their loved ones were among those who had been locked inside the refrigerated truck. It is unclear if there is a crossover between the groups.
Police are working closely with the embassies of both Vietnam and China to try to establish the identities of those who lost their lives.
Pippa Mills, the deputy chief constable of Essex Police, said that she “would like to speak directly to anyone who thinks their loved ones may have been in the trailer” as she assured them that the police only wanted “to give the victims’ families answers about what has happened”.
Anyone in Britain illegally who came forward with information would not face criminal action, she said.
Mills said Essex Police now had four people in custody in relation to the deaths.
A 48-year-old man from Northern Ireland was arrested at Stansted Airport Thursday. Earlier a 38-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman from Warrington, Cheshire, named locally as Joanna and Thomas Maher, had been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to traffick people and on suspicion of 39 counts of manslaughter.
The driver of the truck, named locally as 25-year-old Mo Robinson, from Northern Ireland, remains in custody after he was held on suspicion of murder early on Wednesday.
News of the arrests came as the family of Pham released a series of messages she sent at 10.30 p.m. on Tuesday, as the container would have been making the crossing from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet in Essex, in which she told her mother that she “loved her so much”. In messages Pham wrote: “I’m sorry Mum. My journey abroad hasn’t succeeded. Mum, I love you so much! I’m dying because I can’t breathe… I’m from Nghen, Can Loc, Ha Tinh, Vietnam… I am sorry, Mum.”
Three hours later the container was opened on an industrial estate in Essex and the bodies of eight women and 31 men were found inside.
Pham’s family have revealed that they agreed to pay $50,200 to smuggle their daughter to Britain and that she left their home in the poor Ha Tinh province in central Vietnam on Oct. 3. From there she travelled to China where she stayed for several days before flying to France.
Her younger brother, Pham Manh Cuong, says she made her first attempt to enter the U.K. on Oct 19, but she was stopped by the police and turned back. Her last known location was Belgium, on Oct. 22, and the smuggling gang had since returned the money they had paid to get her to Britain.
Police had said Thursday that the victims were believed to be Chinese nationals, but on Friday, they cautioned that “the picture may change regarding identification” as the investigation continues.
In addition to determining the identities of the victims — eight women and 31 men — authorities are trying to figure out how they died and whether organized crime groups were involved. Post-mortem examinations of 11 of the deceased were due to start on Friday afternoon.
Experts who follow human trafficking trends suggested that the Essex victims could have been compelled into forced labour. Or they could have been migrants who paid their way for the dangerous journey gone horribly wrong.
British officials have previously warned that the route the container took across the North Sea was a launching point for “clandestine arrivals” into Britain.
It’s believed that the fact many of those missing had travelled through China means that they could have paid Snakehead gangs to facilitate their journeys.
— With files from The Washington Post