Some of the 16 migrants found in the back of a lorry on a ferry sailing from France to Co Wexford have told gardaí they believed they were on their way to the UK.
A staff member working for Stena Line was carrying out checks on the vehicle deck of the Stena Horizon at about 9.30am on Thursday as the sailing from Cherbourg neared Rosslare. He heard movement in a trailer, attached to a truck, and the driver was called for over a public tannoy system.
When the trailer was opened, 16 men between the ages of about 20 and 35 years, and possible one juvenile, were discovered in the back. They are believed to be from Iraq and Iran though their identities were still being investigated on Thursday night.
The truck and trailer are owned by an Irish company based in the south east and the driver of the vehicle, who was on board the ferry, is a man in his 50s who has been an Irish resident for more than 25 years. The Garda said both the company and the driver are complying fully with their investigation.
Gardaí believe the 16 men had only just gotten into the trailer before it disembarked Cherbourg at 9pm on Wednesday. The main focus of the Garda inquiry is how the men came to be in the container and whether a criminal gang was involved.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said his Government’s first priority when dealing with the people found in a refrigerated lorry bound for Ireland would be ensuring they are safe and well.
“They may want to claim asylum or they may wish to be returned to a safe country,” he said in Zagreb where he was attending an international political conference.
Ian Hampton, Stena Line’s chief communications officer, praised the professional response of the staff on the sailing, saying they had expertly dealt with a difficult situation.
“Stena Line will remain in contact with all relevant authorities to assist in any way we can with the ongoing investigation,” he said.
Garda Headquarters said in a statement the truck the men were found in was impounded as part of the criminal investigation into the case. It was photographed and examined on the ferry and has now been removed to a secure location for further technical examination.
The driver of the vehicle was aiding gardaí with their inquiries, though he was not arrested.
After the men were found in the truck, they were taken by ferry staff into one of the lounge’s on the ship and given food and drink and medical assistance.
Gardaí were alerted and were waiting, with a medical team, for the ship when it docked in Rosslare about five hours after the men were found.
Independent Cllr Ger Carthy, an advanced paramedic who was among the medical team waiting in Rosslare believed the men were aged between 18 and 40 years, adding they were in very good physical condition and were in good spirits.
However, he described as “very concerning” the fact the men were trapped inside a container on a ferry for so long. “They have to leave their shores to come to our shores for a better life, from war-torn countries,” he said.
Brazilian woman Marine Mamello, who was on the sailing, said the response on board from passengers and staff when it emerged the men had been found was very calm.
“I was a foot passenger and about an hour out (from Rosslare) there was an announcement there might be a delay, that some unauthorised passengers had been found and that the gardaí had been called,” she said, speaking through an Irish friend interpreting for her. “It was all very, very calm; there was no staff and nobody moving around quickly.
“There was a truck driver who was called three times over the tannoy during the sailing. It was only until the third time I thought ‘there’s that guy again, what’s happening with his truck?’”
She added the registration of the truck was also called over the tannoy in an effort to prompt the driver to contact staff and she believed the vehicle registration was Irish.
Anyone with information in relation to the incident is asked to contact investigating gardaí at Wexford Garda station on 053-9165200, the Garda Confidential Line on 1800-666111, Crimestoppers on 1800-250025 or any Garda station.
The incident comes just days after a group of 25 people were found inside a refrigerated container on board a UK-bound ship just off the coast of the Netherlands. Last month, 39 people were found dead inside a container in Essex which had arrived in the UK via a ferry from Zeebrugge, Belgium.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney told the Dáil on Thursday gardaí will work closely with police services across the EU to deal with trafficking.
Mr Coveney said trafficking “is criminal activity that doesn’t respect borders” and said gardaí were currently working closely with the PSNI in relation to the deaths of 39 migrants trafficked to the UK.
Mr Coveney defended the Government’s approach to dealing with human trafficking after Fianna Fáil TD Robert Troy highlighted the case of the migrants found on the ferry bound for Rosslare port.
Mr Troy asked what Ireland was doing to ensure “we don’t become a destination of choice for people carrying out that awful, dreadful trafficking of human beings”.
He said the annual trafficking in persons report for a second year in a row downgraded Ireland’s response because the authorities failed to initiate any prosecutions in 2018.
The report also identified “chronic deficiencies in victim identification and referral and assistance”.
Mr Coveney insisted that the Government is fully committed to addressing human trafficking, with a number of initiatives in place as well as significant Garda resources for investigation and prosecution of human trafficking.