A number of Vietnamese people are feared to be among 39 migrants found dead in a refrigerated lorry in Essex earlier this week.
It was originally suggested that the victims – who were discovered in Essex on Wednesday – were Chinese nationals.
However, on Friday reports began to emerge that Vietnamese families had raised concerns about their loved ones who had been planning on travelling to the UK and had since gone missing.
At a press conference on Saturday, detective chief inspector Martin Pasmore said that while Essex Police were not able to confirm the nationality of the deceased, he had been in touch with the Vietnamese ambassador and was building links with the community in the UK.
“Although we can’t speculate at this time on the nationality of our victims, it’s clear to everybody that we are getting a large amount of engagement from the Vietnamese population, from communities at home and abroad,” Pasmore said.
“I’ve met with the Vietnamese ambassador and we are building a really good and rapid rapport.
“We have agreed, and I have made it really clear to the ambassador that at every stage, we’ll be treating our victims with dignity and respect. The ambassador visited the Civic Centre in Grays and has paid tribute there.
“But underlying all of that, of course, we don’t know exactly the nationality of our individuals. At the moment I’m going to focus and engage as much as I possibly can within the Vietnamese community.”
All of the victims have now been recovered from the trailer and taken to Broomfield Hosptial in Chelmsford, he added.
Pasmore also said there were “very, very few identity documents recovered”, and investigators were examining tattoos, scars and personal belongings – as well as bags carried by the victims – in order to help identify the 39.
More than 500 exhibits have been collected, including mobile phones, which will be downloaded and interrogated for any messages that could give clues to the identity of the victims or how they came to be in the back of the trailer.
The police statement comes amid growing fears from Vietnamese families that their loved ones could be among the 39 people found dead.
On Friday the family of Pham Tra My, 26, told the BBC they had paid £30,000 for her to be smuggled to Britain but have not been able to contact her since she sent a text on Tuesday night saying she was suffocating.
Several other people from Vietnam are also feared dead by their families, including Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, Bui Thi Nhung, 19, and Nguyen Dinh Tuare also feared dead.
The Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has ordered his own authorities to investigate the nationality of those that died.
Phuc also ordered police to launch an investigation into alleged human trafficking activities, and said: “Any violations will be strictly dealt with.”
Pasmore said Essex Police were investigating lines of inquiry to “establish whether there is a wider conspiracy involved” in the deaths.
The Vietnamese Embassy in London confirmed it has contacted police in regard to a missing woman feared to be one of the 39 people found on Wednesday.
The 26-year-old was identified on Twitter by Human Rights Space coordinator Hoa Nghiem, who said she had sent a series of increasingly desperate messages to her family before she ceased contact.
“I’m sorry Mom. My path to abroad doesn’t succeed. Mom, I love you so much! I’m dying bcoz I can’t breath ... I’m from Nghen, Can Loc, Ha Tinh, Vietnam ... I am sorry, Mom,” the message said according to Hoa.
She said Tra My had gone to China and was planning to reach England via France.
“Our contact is getting more alerts that there could be more Vietnamese people in the truck,” Hoa said on Twitter.
In Vietnam, Nguyen Dinh Gia, the father of 20-year-old Nguyen Dinh Luong, feared his son was among the container victims.
He had not spoken to his son since last week when he told his father he was trying to reach the UK by joining a group in Paris.
“He often called home but I haven’t been able to reach him since the last time we talked last week,” Nguyen Dinh Gia said.
“I told him that he could go to anywhere he wants as long as it’s safe. He shouldn’t worry about money, I’ll take care of it.”
He explained his son left Vietnam to work in Russia in 2017 and had since passed through Ukraine, Germany and France.
In Yen Thanh, Nghe An province, dozens of worried relatives of 19-year-old Bui Thi Nhung gathered in the family’s small courtyard home where her worried mother has been unable to rise from her bed.
“She said she was in France and on the way to the UK, where she has friends and relatives,” said Nhung’s cousin, Hoang Thi Linh.
“We are waiting and hoping it’s not her among the victims, but it’s very likely. We pray for her everyday. There were two people from my village travelling in that group”.
In comments under a photo uploaded to Nhung’s Facebook account on Monday, two days before the truck was discovered, one friend asked how her journey was going.
“Not good,” Nhung replied. “Almost spring,” she said, using a term in Vietnamese meaning she had almost reached her destination.
Other photos on her account show her sightseeing in Brussels on Oct. 18. “Such a beautiful day,” she wrote.
Another person who may have died is Nguyen Dinh Tu, who had previously been employed illegally in Romania, and Germany, where he lost his job.
A few months ago, he asked his wife Hoang Thi Thuong to help him raise £11,000 to cover the cost of an illicit trip from Germany to the United Kingdom.
“I lost contact with him on October 21,” Thuong told Reuters. “I have a big debt to pay, no hope, and no energy to do anything”.
Tu’s father said relatives in the United Kingdom had told him that Tu was inside the truck, and had been planning to pick him up.
“They were supposed to pick him up at the drop-off point but they called and said Tu was in that truck,” Tu’s father, Nguyen Dinh Sat, told Reuters.
“I haven’t heard anything from my son”.
The BBC said they had also been contacted by the family of a 26-year-old man from Vietnam who feared he was amongst the victims.
Father Anthony Dang Huu Nam, a catholic priest in the remote town of Yen Thanh in northern-central Vietnam’s Nghe An province, 180 miles south of Hanoi, said he believed a significant number of the 39 victims were from Vietnam andhe was liaising with family members of the victims.
“The whole district is covered in sorrow,” Nam said, as prayers for the dead rang out over loudspeakers throughout the rain-soaked town on Saturday.
“I’m still collecting contact details for all the victim’s families, and will hold a ceremony to pray for them tonight.”
“This is a catastrophe for our community.”
Nam said families told him they knew relatives were travelling to the UK at the time and had been unable to contact their loved ones.
“That girl who said in her message that she couldn’t breathe in the truck? Her parents can’t breathe here at home,” Nam said.
Nghe An is one of Vietnam’s poorest provinces, and home to many victims of human trafficking who end up in Europe, according to a March report by the Pacific Links Foundation, a U.S.-based anti-trafficking organisation.
Other victims are believed to come from the neighbouring province of Ha Tinh, Nam said, where in the first eight months of this year, 41,790 people left looking for work elsewhere, including overseas, according to state media.
A 48-year-old man from Northern Ireland was detained at Stansted Airport on Friday on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and manslaughter, Essex Police said.
Officers had earlier arrested a couple, named locally as haulage boss Thomas Maher and his wife Joanna, both 38, of Warrington, on suspicion of 39 counts of manslaughter and people trafficking.
On Wednesday, the driver of the truck – named locally as 25-year-old Mo Robinson, from Northern Ireland – was arrested on suspicion of murder.