On the 23rd of October, 39 Vietnamese migrants were found frozen to death in the back of a truck in Essex. How exactly they ended up in the refrigerated trailer is not yet known, but trafficking gangs undoubtedly played a part somewhere along the way – gangs that lorry drivers in Europe are increasingly being targeted by, with stabbings, beatings and even gassings.
Last Christmas, the Gilets Jaunes protests in France drew attention to the rising costs of living and fuel prices for the country's working class. The protests – which roadblocked ports and key transport routes into Britain – also unwittingly provided a smokescreen for another group of people desperate to change their lot.
As heavy lorry traffic ground to a standstill near Dunkirk – one of the hubs the Essex lorry passed through from its starting point in Zeebrugge, Belgium – migrants desperate for a route into the UK spotted a chance to get closer to the trucks that might get them into Britain. In broad daylight, cutting between two lanes of motorway traffic, groups would split in two, one half distracting drivers, the other attempting to get into the back of the moving vehicles.
It was a lethal tactic with a low chance of reward – an example of the risks some people will take in search of a better life for themselves and their families, much like the 39 who tragically died in Essex last month.
While some lorry drivers might be actively complicit in people trafficking, many just get caught up in the violence that surrounds it.
Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, says in the last five years he's had drivers attacked with baseball bats and knives, and female drivers threatened with rape. Even on busy European roads trafficking gangs will put trees in the road, set fire to oil drums or chuck things through the windscreen to get drivers to stop so they can force themselves inside. Some drivers have even been gassed in their cabs as they sleep.
"When drivers stop at a truck stop, they might leave the window or door open to let some air in while they have a nap," says Burnett. "The traffickers then spray in a gas to knock them out – their lorry load might then be filled with migrants and they know nothing about it. They might wake up feeling pretty sick for reasons they don't understand, but carry on with their journey regardless."
One trucker, 48-year-old John Jones from Banbury, set up his own business, Protek-dor, after he was gassed twice – once in Belgium, once in France – to sell improved security for truck cabs. He says, "It's been rife in Europe for a while. I was gassed twice and had the contents of my cab stolen."
Near Dunkirk, an ad-hoc migrant camp is packed, says driver Barry Woods, 57: "Anywhere there is an opportunity to meet drivers or lorries, large groups of migrants gather hoping for a chance. They really are stood in the bushes, at the truck stops, every supermarket car park, hard shoulders, road islands." And there are plenty of drivers who are happy to help in return for cash.
Next to the lake at Dunkirk, cars with English and Irish number plates pull up to make deals. It's the same situation at a fuel station in Vern, just inside Belgium, a new hotspot away from the hyper-policed port in Calais.
"English plated cars will pull up next to you and ask you if you want to earn extra cash – these are English and Irish people in these cars," one driver told VICE. "They want you to smuggle migrants, cigarettes, drugs, but I'd never do it. You can never just do one job and quit, and if they have your registration number they could find out almost anything about you."
Sherralin Ballard, 55, has spent 34 years as a driver. She's self-employed, as the owner and driver of a 40-ton truck. She has been intimidated by people traffickers who want her to smuggle people across borders – she was offered £2,000 per head in Bilbao recently – but has always turned these bribes down, and avoids troublesome ports like Calais.
It was baffling, then, when port authorities opened her lorry in France to reveal 11 Iraqis – ten men, one woman – sitting in the back of the lorry. "Every trailer gets opened, so I walked around the back to show the guards, and out popped all these migrants," says Sherralin. "The seal was still on and I have dead locks on everything. You can't get in. The only thing going through my mind was, 'How did they get in there?'"
Sherralin remembers having a nap near Le Mans – "I'd been driving ten hours and the weather was almost like a hurricane, there was no one else around," she says – but when she woke up she checked the back of her lorry and it was still locked and sealed.
After a police investigation of Sherralin's log books, they concluded that the traffickers had a key for the mass-produced lock on the back of her lorry. She says, "The police believe, across many companies, there are only around 15 types of locks inside many padlocks. The traffickers will have the keys for all of that brand's locks. The traffickers will have hundreds of thousands of pounds at stake and they will go to extreme lengths to get inside your truck."
The desperation of people trying to escape war zones or discrimination in their home countries being met by those who have their livelihoods to protect means there's little love lost between migrants and drivers.
"You see the tragic faces of those that died in Essex, and it's desperately sad, but the migrants you see on the roads are hardened, aggressive and carrying weapons," says Sherralin, of her personal experiences. "The ones in my truck were nasty and aggressive, and each one had a knife. When they were leaving the truck they threw abuse at me, they put curses on my family, they said I was scum and deserved to die. I thought, 'What right have you to destroy my life?'"
Back in the UK, investigations into the Essex lorry are ongoing: the driver, Maurice Robinson, appeared in court last week, charged with various offences, including people trafficking and 39 counts of manslaughter, while police in Vietnam have arrested eight people in relation to the case.
Those 39 poor souls who froze to death in the back of a -25C freezer lorry were in a race against time, even if the freezer was turned off, says Richard Burnett of the RHA: "In order to keep the unit at a set temperature, those freezer units are airtight sealed. The horrible reality is there is very limited oxygen in there, especially for so many people."
The use of the freezer lorries shows a new deadly addition to the trafficking industry. Heart rate monitors, CO2 detectors and sniffer dogs at major ports like Calais will expose any human cargo, but freezer units are rarely checked as they would not support human life.
"That is quite possibly why trafficking gangs have started using freezers to smuggle human cargo," says Burnett. "It also shows how little regard they have for life."