In Brief

Essex lorry deaths: the challenge to identify the 39 victims

None of the dead have been named officially since their bodies were found last Wednesday

UK police are struggling to identify the dozens of people found dead in a refrigerated trailer in Essex last week, as the criminal investigation continues.

Maurice Robinson, a 25-year-old lorry driver from Northern Ireland, appeared via videolink at Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court on Monday morning charged with 39 counts of manslaughter over the deaths, along with other offences including conspiracy to traffic people. He was remanded in custody and will appear at the Old Bailey in London in November, The Guardian reports. 

But while the criminal investigation is producing results, none of the victims have been officially identified since the bodies were discovered in the lorry at an industrial park in Grays last Wednesday. Although police originally said they believed the victims were from China, they have since concluded that the majority were Vietnamese.

Why is it taking so long?

To identify the remains of 39 bodies of people from overseas would always be a complex process, but in this case there are additional complications.

Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore of Essex Police said UK-based families and friends of the victims may be “too frightened” to come forward because “it may well be people are here illegally”, reports news site Essex Live

Few of the victims were carrying official identification - probably for the same reason.

Each victim’s body offers vital forensic evidence, meaning the handling of their corpses, being kept at a hospital in Chelmsford, is a sensitive and time-consuming process.

What are investigators doing?

Essex Police says the investigation is the “largest mass fatality victim identification process in the history” of the force.

A spokesperson said officers are using “internationally recognised standards of identification”, known as the Interpol Disaster Victim Identification Standards.

“Victims are identified where possible, by at least one of the primary identification methods which are dental comparison, fingerprints and DNA,” says the Essex Police website.

“Other, secondary, identification features are also taken into consideration, such as tattoos and scars. Supporting information to consider can include jewellery, clothing or property.”

Britain also reached out overseas for support.

Euronews reports that the UK investigators have asked Vietnam for assistance in identifying at least four of the 39 victims. 

Meanwhile,  VietHome – a website for expatriates in the UK – has sent photos of almost 20 missing Vietnamese citizens to investigators, according to The Independent.

The Vietnamese ambassador to the UK met with investigators from the National Crime Agency (NCA) and Essex Police over the weekend, and the Vietnamese embassy in London has “set up a hotline to help families seeking information about their loved ones”, adds The Guardian.

In Vietnam, local police have taken hair and blood samples from relatives of suspected victims to help with the probe.

What do we know about the victims?

Families in communities across Vietnam are waiting to find out whether missing relatives are among the dead. Hundreds of people attended a church ceremony on Saturday to pray for three suspected victims from the central Do Thanh area.

Relatives of one of the missing trio, 19-year-old woman Bui Thi Nhung, said she had paid a smuggler more than $10,000 (£7,800) to get her to Britain in the hope of working in a nail bar, The Independent reports.

The family of another feared victim, 26-year-old Pham Tra My, told the BBC that they had not been able to contact her since she sent a text on Tuesday night saying she was suffocating.

“I am really, really sorry, mum and dad, my trip to a foreign land has failed,” she wrote in the message. “I am dying, I can’t breathe. I love you very much.”

Sky News has named several other people believed to have died in the lorry, including father-of-two Vo Ngoc Nam and 19-year-old man Vo Nhan Du.

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