The driver of the lorry that contained 39 dead migrants has been charged with manslaughter and human trafficking.
Maurice Robinson, 25, from Co Armagh in Northern Ireland, faces 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering, Essex police said on Saturday.
The announcement came shortly after Irish police arrested another Northern Irish man at Dublin port on suspicion of involvement in the tragedy. It brought the number of people from the island of Ireland who have been arrested to five, fuelling suspicion an Irish smuggling gang was part of the network that transported the migrants.
The sprawling police investigation stretches from the Irish border, England, continental Europe and Vietnam, where many of the victims are believed to have come from.
Robinson, who is known as Mo, was arrested early on Wednesday morning after police were alerted to the discovery of 31 men and eight women in the back of a lorry trailer in Grays, Essex. Robinson had picked up the trailer, which had arrived in Purfleet from Zeebrugge, with his Scania lorry cab less than an hour earlier.
Essex police said the Crown Prosecution Service had decided to charge the driver. “He is due to appear at Chelmsford magistrates court on Monday 28 October charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering.”
Friends and relatives of Robinson have protested his innocence.
A portrait of some of the alleged victims has emerged from Vietnam where relatives of missing migrants have come forward.
DCI Martin Pasmore told reporters he had met the Vietnamese ambassador to the UK, Tran Ngoc An, and that investigators will share fingerprints with Vietnamese authorities to try to identify the dead. The bodies have been taken to Broomfield hospital in Chelmsford for postmortem examinations.
The 23-year-old Northern Irish man arrested at Dublin port on Saturday is understood to be a person of interest to Essex police. Gardai held him over an unrelated outstanding court order concerning an offence in Ireland. He was due to appear in court later on Saturday.
On Friday British police made three other arrests.
Joanna and Thomas Maher, both aged 38, are a married Irish couple living in Warrington. Before being arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and on suspicion of manslaughter they told reporters they had sold the truck 13 months ago. They expressed disgust at the migrants’ deaths.
Also on Friday, police arrested a 48-year-old man from Northern Ireland at Stansted airport on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and on suspicion of manslaughter.
In Belgium, police are hunting the driver who delivered the trailer to the port of Zeebrugge before it arrived in Purfleet port, where Robinson collected it and drove a short distance before reportedly discovering the dead migrants and raising the alarm.
Global Trailer Rental Europe, an Irish company based in Co Monaghan, owns the trailer. It rented it on 15 October to an Irish haulier based in a nearby town.
When the Guardian visited the area on Saturday residents who identified themselves as relatives of the haulier said he was not at home. They declined to comment.
GPS data from the refrigerated unit shows it left Monaghan on 15 October and crossed into Northern Ireland and then back south into Ireland, sources have said. It then travelled from Dublin port to the UK overnight on 16 October, and crossed to mainland Europe that evening.
The trailer travelled to Dunkirk and Lille in France, and Bruges in Belgium. Dunkirk is a 40-minute drive from Calais and is a known site for people smugglers preying on migrants seeking to cross the Channel to the UK.
The data from the tracking device, which has been passed to Essex police investigating the deaths, also shows the trailer made a journey between the UK and mainland Europe on 22 October.
Very few identification papers were found in the lorry, said Pasmore. He appealed for those who may know the victims – who were initially said to be Chinese – to come forward.
“It may well be that there are people watching this tonight that are thinking ‘I’m here in the UK and I’m here illegally and I want to come forward, I want to obviously try and identify my loved ones and be reunited,’ but they are frightened to come forward,” Pasmore said.
He explained he had met with a “facilitator” of one of the websites run for the Vietnamese community to help build trust between it and the police, hoping to encourage people to “take that leap of faith” and make contact with Essex police.