THE number of children found trapped in a shipping container with a corpse at Tilbury Dock has risen to 15.
Police and Border Force officers will now begin interviewing the final four of the 34 Sikh Afghanis found with their dead countryman, believed to be in his 40s, after they were treated for dehydration and hypothermia at Southend Hospital.
Police have now confirmed two adults and two children remained in the hospital overnight, taking the total children discovered in the container to 15.
Officials are yet to confirm the ages of the newly discharged patients, but those who left hospitals in Southend, Basildon and London at the weekend included 13 children aged between one and 12 and nine men and eight women aged between 18 and 72.
Supt Trevor Roe, of Essex Police, said: "Tragically, one man died on the voyage and the investigation into his death is now being led by us.
“These people were found in an awful situation and our main priority is to look after them and ensure they are now safe following what would have been a horrendous ordeal.
"I would like to thank the East of England Ambulance Service, the Home Office’s Border Force and immigration teams, the Port of Tilbury authorities, the National Crime Agency, the Red Cross and members of the local Sikh community for their help and efforts during this incident.”
More tests are needed to determine what killed the dead man, who is believed to be in his 40s, after a post mortem carried out at Basildon Hospital failed to establish a cause of death.
An international homicide probe has been launched to snare the human traffickers exploiting the group, who may have been fleeing persecution at the hands of Muslim extremists.
Essex Police and Crime Commissioner Nick Alston said: “This incident should highlight for us the evil of the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable people of all sorts and in many different circumstances.
“The police and partner agencies are continuing to investigate the circumstances of those found in that container. But we can be sure that almost all cases of human trafficking involve exploitation by callous organised criminal gangs.
“Much of the great harm caused by human traffickers is unseen by most of us; and it too easy not to care. “I am determined that human trafficking and other hidden harms, those crimes that seemingly don’t impact on most of us ever, but where the lives of the vulnerable are made wretched and frequently ruined, are brought in to the open.
“It matters because of those ruined lives; and because evil criminals and violent perpetrators are profiting from that harm.”
Essex Police and the Border Force have begun questioning the group at an immigration reception centre near the port after they were treated for dehydration and hypothermia at hospitals in Southend, Basildon and London.
Officers from the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate are working with Belgian police, Interpol and other international agencies to net the gang who helped the group into the container, which arrived at Tilbury from Belgium yesterday morning.
Superintendent Trevor Roe, of Essex Police, described the stowaways as “victims” and pledged to bring the criminals who exploited them to justice.
He said: "It is a homicide investigation. We will be looking to see where the origin and the gangs or whoever may be involved in this conspiracy to bring these people in this way over to this country. “Clearly we need to try and bring them to justice."
The homicide investigation could lead to murder or manslaughter charges, although police have no suspicion anyone in the container killed the dead man. Belgian police have CCTV of a lorry delivering the shipping container to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, where it departed for Tilbury, but are yet to identify the driver or company involved.
The immigrants were sealed in the 8ft by 20ft container for at least 12 hours as the footage showed it arrive at the port at about 6pm on Friday before being loaded just after 8pm.
Police are checking chemicals, believed to be cleaning products, found in the container but they are not thought to pose a risk to health.
Supt Roe said: “Now they are well enough, our officers and colleagues from the Border Force will be speaking to them via interpreters so we can piece together what happened and how they came to be in the container.”