20 Vietnamese feared among 39 UK truck dead

British police initially said all of the 31 men and eight women found early Wednesday in a refrigerated lorry in an industrial park in Grays, east of London, were believed to be Chinese nationals. AFP file photo

As many as 20 Vietnamese citizens are feared among 39 people found dead in a truck in Britain this week, according to families and community organisers Saturday, as one of the alleged truck owners denied involvement in the tragedy.

British police initially said all of the 31 men and eight women found early Wednesday in a refrigerated lorry in an industrial park in Grays, east of London, were believed to be Chinese nationals.

Four people have been held over the incident, which has shocked Britain and shed light on dangerous trafficking routes into Europe taken by undocumented migrants.

Several Vietnamese families now fear their relatives are among the victims, who may have been carrying falsified Chinese passports.

Britain-based community group VietHome said it had received "photos of nearly 20 people reported missing, age 15-45" from Vietnam, a popular source for smuggled migrants looking to better their lives in the UK.

Nguyen Dinh Gia told AFP Saturday he got a call from his son two weeks ago saying he was planning to go to Britain where he hoped to work in a nail salon.

His 20-year-old son Nguyen Dinh Luong had been living in France and said the journey to Britain would cost 11,000 pounds (USD 14,000).

But Gia received a call several days ago from a Vietnamese man saying "Please have some sympathy, something unexpected happened," he recounted to AFP.

"I fell to the ground when I heard that," Gia said. "It seemed that he was in the truck with the accident, all of them dead," he added.

A 26-year-old Vietnamese woman Pham Thi Tra My is also believed to be among the victims after her family received a text message from her hours before the migrants were discovered.

"I'm sorry Mom. My path to abroad doesn't succeed. Mom, I love you so much! I'm dying because I can't breathe," she said in the message confirmed by her brother Pham Manh Cuong.

He received another message from her a few hours later saying: "Please try to work hard to pay the debt for mummy, my dear," according to a text sent at 12:15 Vietnam time on Wednesday (0515 GMT) seen by AFP.

The family, who live in a bare home with a corrugated tin roof in central Vietnam, have asked Vietnamese officials to help find the missing woman.

The truck carrying the migrants arrived in Purfleet on the River Thames estuary on a ferry from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge just over an hour before ambulance crews called the police at 1:40 am.

The driver, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, was arrested at the scene.

A married couple was held in Warrington in northwest England on Friday, including a woman who allegedly once owned the truck that carried the container, according to media reports.

The pair denied any involvement and said the truck had been sold to an Irish company more than a year ago.

"It's nothing to do with us now," said one of the accused, Joanna Maher, as quoted by The Times.

A fourth suspect, a 48-year-old man from Northern Ireland, has also been arrested.

Investigators started carrying out autopsies Friday to establish how the victims died before the work begins on trying to identify them.

The police investigation is Britain's largest murder probe since the 2005 London suicide bombings.

The suspected Vietnamese victims both come from Ha Tinh, an impoverished province in a part of Vietnam where many of the country's illegal migrants come from.

Many have their sights set on Britain, where they end up working in nail salons or on cannabis farms, hoping for quick riches.

They can pay smugglers up to USD 40,000 for the dangerous journey across eastern Europe -- often via China or Russia -- an enormous sum in Vietnam where the annual per capital income is around USD 2,400, according to the World Bank.

Those who cannot pay upfront often have to work off their debt to traffickers, which may include a fee for falsified documents.

The Vietnamese embassy in London is working to "accelerate the process of confirming the victims' identities", according to a statement from the foreign ministry in Hanoi.

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