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Deaths of 39 migrants in a British truck highlight the brutality of human smuggling

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    British police are trying to find the culprits behind the manslaughter of 39 people found dead last week in the back of a refrigerated truck outside of London.

    The case shines a light on criminal gangs that prey on the world's most vulnerable migrants who flee violence and lack of opportunity to try and find a better life.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Britain.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    A scent of jasmine lingers, where 39 lives were snuffed out in a locked refrigerated trailer. This industrial estate east of London is a grim place to die.

    Latest reports indicate that most of the victims were Vietnamese. One of them, Pham Thi Tra My, sent a text as oxygen ran out and hypothermia overwhelmed her.

    It read, in part:

  • Woman:

    "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. I'm sorry, mom."

  • Tony Smith:

    Well, it indicates to me that they're getting more desperate, I mean, the migrants and the smugglers.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    As the former director general of the U.K.'s border force, Tony Smith has extensive knowledge about people trafficking and illegal immigration into Britain, which has intensified recently.

  • Tony Smith:

    We have seen lots of attempts in the last year in small boats coming across the English Channel, and some drownings, sadly. And now this just demonstrates that the smugglers are prepared to go to any lengths at all, really, to bring people over here.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The trailer entered the country by ship via the River Thames. The gang responsible avoided the crossing between Calais in Northern France and Dover in Southern England, where security is tighter.

    Precise details of the victims' desperate 6,000-mile journey aren't yet known, but the clandestine passage from impoverished Vietnamese villages to Britain can cost around $30,000.

    The International Organization for Migration has identified one route as going via Russia, with migrants walking across land borders through Eastern Europe to reach ports serving Britain. The people in this case were trafficked through Zeebrugge in Belgium.

  • Dr. Patrick Burland:

    One of the key vulnerabilities we have identified for Vietnam is just the length of their journey, the kind of physical violence they might experience, sexual violence.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Dr. Patrick Burland's specialty is modern slavery. He's investigated the ordeals of Vietnamese migrants. Many of them end up working in nail salons or cannabis farms to send money home.

    Burland says they are most at risk when, exhausted after their journey, they finally reach the channel ports.

  • Dr. Patrick Burland:

    They realized that what they were doing was very dangerous. They were — they were terrified of the refrigerator lorries, terrified of the — hiding under the lorry wheel axles, hanging on for dear life.

    But they — there was a person there who was, you know, screaming and shouting at them. They had to get on, or there was a physical threat.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Two hundred miles away from London, Syrian Ahmad Al Rashid has found sanctuary. He escaped the siege of Aleppo and ISIS beheadings in Iraq.

    But his closest brush with death came in the back of a refrigerated truck in France. He and his companions were rescued when their cries for help were heard.

  • Ahmad Amiri:

    When we first got into the back of that lorry, you know, you are very hopeful that it's going to be all right. You don't think about it.

    But, with time, with — it became more airless. And you're losing your concentration. And you cannot breathe anymore. And this is where the panic kicks in. And this is where I started, like, seeing death, smelling death, looking at the eyes of the other people who were in the back of that container, seeing death in their eyes.

    I mean, this was one of the most terrifying experiences.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Ten-year-old Ahmad Amiri is using his story to discourage other refugees from risking their lives.

    His drawings illustrate his journey from Afghanistan, across the Aegean Sea to Greece, and eventually into the back of a refrigerated truck in Britain with his elder brother, Jawad, and 14 others. Ahmad saved their lives.

    On their way, the brothers stayed in a squalid camp in Calais. An American volunteer, Liz Clegg, gave Ahmad a phone. She was able to alert the police just in time.

  • Ahmad Amiri:

    Sometimes, I have bad dreams. Inside the lorry, I couldn't breathe. So, then people are trying to get some help.

    But then they couldn't, because their phones weren't working. And I just rang Liz Clegg, who gave me a small phone that, if I needed any help, I could ring her, and she would help me.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    There was no such lifeline for the 31 men and eight women as they were transported up the Thames and deposited in a district experts say is a netherworld for Eastern European gangs.

    Northern Irishman Mo Johnson, the driver of the truck found last week, has been charged with 39 counts of manslaughter. Local police have identified two Irish brothers in connection with what they're treating as one of Britain's worst mass murders.

    Crime writer Wensley Clarkson's new book deals with the underworld operating in this region. He says the gang masters use British and Irish drivers because they attract less attention.

  • Wensley Clarkson:

    These criminal gangs are highly organized, ruthless and far from desperate. They have turned it into a very lucrative business enterprise.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    And Clarkson says the gangs used Brexit as a marketing tool.

  • Wensley Clarkson:

    The Brexit deadline meant that the criminals could almost legitimately say it would be harder for them to get into England once that agreement had been made.

    And this has helped them enormously. And even with the deadline extension which has just been announced, I predict that, over the next three months, there will be a surge of even more trying to get into this country illegally.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    One of the benefits of Britain's membership of the European Union has been its ability to share intelligence about cross-border crime and people trafficking with nations like Belgium and France.

    But Britain's participation in the police agency Europol could be jeopardized as a result of Brexit.

  • Tony Smith:

    We may not have access to some of the European systems that we have access to now. But I do think it's really, really important that, one way or another, we find a way to collaborate at an international level.

    This is international organized crime. It demands an international organized response, and we need to be a part of that.

  • Wensley Clarkson:

    We have a very, very difficult situation for the police. They are chasing their tails, literally. They have no idea who most of them are. And, at the moment, it doesn't look like they're likely to get any nearer.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Now that he's safe, Ahmad Al Rashid doesn't like to lecture other refugees about the dangers of getting into a smuggler's truck, but he hopes this tragedy will act as a catalyst for change.

  • Ahmad al Rashid:

    I think it needs leadership. With this, you need kind of thinking about finding legal pathways for people to move without relying on these criminals.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But ever since the European refugee crisis began, such pleas have fallen on deaf ears, and the death toll keeps rising.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Purfleet.

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