Probe continues after 16 found in truck
Latest incident brings back memories of terrible tragedy at Drinagh 18 years ago
The Wexford-based driver of the articulated lorry in which 16 Kurdish males from Iraq and Iran were discovered on board the Stena Horizon ferry en route to Rosslare Harbour from France last Thursday, was back in work on Saturday, on another European run.
The lorry cab was released by gardai on Friday night although the tractor unit was withheld for further forensic examination, as part of a continuing investigation into the incident which Wexford Superintendent Jim Doyle described as 'very traumatic' for those involved.
At a press conference in the terminal building in Rosslare on Thursday night, the Garda boss said the driver and the Wexford company which owns the truck were co-operating fully with the authorities.
News of the discovery on board the ferry from Cherbourg, emerged around midday on Thursday last and was met with a fearful sense of deja vu, coming as it did just weeks after the bodies of 39 Vietnamese people were discovered in the back of a lorry in Essex, UK.
On this occasion, the men inside the unit, including a juvenile, were lucky to be found alive, after reportedly spending 20 days travelling to Cherbourg and then up to 12 hours in the sealed truck which was carrying chemicals bound for a pharmaceutical factory that manufactures medicines.
There was widespread public relief that the hidden passengers were okay but it was mixed with the awful feeling that this could so easily have been another migrant tragedy on Wexford's doorstep.
People will never forget the hellish scene that unfolded at Drinagh Business Park on December 8, 2001 when eight people from Turkey including four children, were found dead from a lack of oxygen in the back of a lorry which transported a consignment of furniture from Milan in Italy.
Five of the human cargo of 13 people survived after spending five days in the darkened interior of the unit. A memorial to those who died stands in the business park.
The first official Garda statement on the Stena Horizon discovery was made at approximately 3.30 p.m. on Thursday when the press office at Garda headquarters in Dublin said: 'An Garda Síochána at Wexford Garda Station are currently investigating potential breaches of immigration legislation which may have occurred on board a Stena Line ferry travelling from Cherbourg which arrived in Rosslare today at approximately 2.40 p.m.'.
'At approximately 9.45 a.m. today, the captain of the ferry alerted gardai that a number of people had been discovered in the trailer of an articulated tractor unit on the vehicle deck. All the individuals appear in good health and are currently receiving medical assessments on arrival at Rosslare Port.
'Garda Immigration Officers attached to Wexford Garda Station, supported by the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) will carry out an assessment on the immigration status of all the persons'.
The discovery was made at about 9.20 a.m. by a staff member carrying out a routine inspection on the vehicle deck, who heard sounds coming from the container and alerted the captain.
The driver was summoned to assist in opening the trailer and the occupants were taken to a lounge and given food, drinks and blankets.
There were reports, although unconfirmed by gardai, that the men believed the trailer they got into, was being towed by a truck destined for the UK, not Ireland.
Despite bad weather conditions with torrential rain and wind, the ferry docked ahead of schedule. It was greeted by a welcoming party of television cameras and newspaper photographers, positioned on the hill above the harbour to capture its arrival. A large number of journalists waited in the shelter of the terminal building.
From the vantage point of the hill, two ambulances, paramedic cars and a number of garda cars and vans were observed driving onto the ferry after the ramp came down. Two consultant doctors and a number of nurses were dispatched from Wexford General Hospital to assist.
About an hour out of Rosslare Harbour, an announcement had come over the ship's tannoy for the benefit of the relatively small number of passengers on the ferry, mostly freight drivers and including four foot passengers.
A Wicklowman and his French girlfriend said they were told there would be a delay in disembarking after docking, as a number of 'unauthorised people' had been found on board.
At. 7.15 p.m. on Thursday evening, Superintendent Doyle gave an update on the incident during the scheduled press briefing.
He said staff on the ferry, with the assistance of the driver, opened the trailer unit and 16 males were removed and brought to a private lounge on the vessel where they received immediate medical and welfare care.
'All 16 males were medically assessed by doctors and ambulance personnel on the ferry and are assessed to be good health.
'Gardai believe that all the men are of Middle Eastern origin and are adults but gardai continue to confirm the age of one man who may be a juvenile'. The Superintendent said officers were processing the men under immigration legislation.
'After our initial enquiries they will be transferred to a reception centre organised by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) where their welfare concerns will be addressed.
'This has been a traumatic experience for these men and they are being treated with sympathy and compassion'.
'The articulated lorry was photographed and examined on the ferry and has now been removed to a secure location for further technical examination.
'The tractor and trailer are owned by a local Irish based company. The owners are cooperating fully with the ongoing investigation. The driver is a male in his 50's, a resident of Ireland for over 25 years, a long-time employee of the company, and he is cooperating fully with the ongoing investigation'.
In response to questions, Superintendent Doyle said the migrants had been in the trailer for up to 12 hours and were in 'excellent condition and all medically sound' when assessed.
'They were in good spirits and good health. None of them seemed to be in too much distress'
The Superintendent said he was aware of reports that the men were heard banging on the trailer but he could not confirm that.
He said that in light of other well-documented tragedies in the past, it was very fortunate that the men were in good health.
Commending Wexford General Hospital and the emergency services for their assistance, he said the gardai had time to put a plan place before the ferry docked.
An interpretor was brought in to assist with communication and a number of the migrants had broken English.
The following day, it was confirmed that all the men were believed to be of Kurdish ethnicity from the Middle East region but their formal identification was ongoing.
An initial report that the trailer was a refrigerated unit similar to the one involved in the Essex deaths, was clarified by a Garda press office representative who said it was 'climate controlled' rather than being a freezer unit.
He also stated that the gardai were not necessarily saying the men were trafficked, but they may have gone into the truck voluntarily.'We have a very open mind about how they got here'.
The press officer said the men would be kept together as a group for the time being and brought to a refugee reception centre, although he wouldn't confirm the location of the premises.
The 16-strong group, including one minor who is now in the care of the child protection agency Tusla, applied for international protection before being taken from Rosslare Harbour.
They were processed by the International Protection Office, a section within the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (NIS).
However, over the weekend, it was reported that a number of the migrants were now unaccounted for, having left their accommodation by Friday night, which they were entitled to do, as they were not in detention and not obliged to stay in accommodation provided by the State. It was suspected that those who left the refugee centre may have been hoping to make it to the UK. But Garda Press office would not confirm this report.
Gardai are continuing their criminal investigation into the circumstances of the incident and anyone with information, no matter how insignificant it may appear, is asked to contact investigating gardai at Wexford Garda Station on 053 9165200, the Garda Confidential Line on 18006611 or Crimestoppers on 1800250025 or any station.