The bodies of 39 people were found in a refrigerated trailer in Essex last week. Though the 31 men and eight women, including one teenager, are yet to be individually identified, conversations around why refugees are putting their lives in danger to come to the UK are arising.

The journey for migrants to find safety in Europe is often done through intercontinental lorries and small boats. According to a report by the UN’s International Organization for Migration, over 17,900 people have died or went missing in the Mediterranean Sea since the start of the migrant crisis in 2014. The report also notes that this figure is likely to be underreported.

Dr. Lisa Doyle, Director of Advocacy at the Refugee Council, in a statement, wrote that people “take enormous risks to find safety… because countries have increasingly introduced measures to make it more and more difficult for people to cross their borders.”  

‘Tighter laws mean higher risk’

Doyle also wrote that claiming asylum requires one’s presence in the UK, but tight visa and travel rules leave people “no choice but to use irregular, sometimes deadly, routes in order to even have the chance of applying for protection.”

She said introducing safe and regular travel routes and programs for family reunifications could help reduce the high risks.

“History has shown us that tightening borders does not stop people crossing them, rather it makes their journeys even more dangerous, causing shameful tragedies like the one reported this week,” she said.

The victims

Officials believed the victims were Chinese nationals initially, but further identification efforts are being focused on the Vietnamese community.

Distressed text messages from Pham Thi Tra My, 26, sent to her family on 22 October read “I am dying, I can’t breathe.” She has not been heard from since.

Others who are missing include Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, and Nguyen Dinh Tu, Le Van Ha, 30, and 19-year-old Bui Thi Nhung. The teenager is thought to be the youngest of those who died.

A helpline has been set up by the Vietnamese Embassy in London for people seeking help to get in contact.

The smugglers

This weekend Essex Police confirmed they had charged the driver of the lorry that contained the bodies of 39 dead migrants. Maurice Robinson, 25, was charged with 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people over the lorry trailer deaths, officers said.

Ronan Hughes, 40, and Christopher Hughes, 34, both from Armagh in Northern Ireland, are also wanted on suspicion of human trafficking, Essex Police said on Tuesday.

Essex Police described the deaths as the largest murder investigation in the force’s history.

Past instances of migrant deaths in the UK and Europe

According to the IOM report, since 2014, 12 migrants have been found dead entering the country and one is still missing and to be presumed dead.

These victims include a man who fell from a plane into a garden in London earlier this year.

Other instances of multiple migrant deaths in Europe include one in Austria where 71 people were found dead in a lorry in 2015.

Zahra Khozema