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Sunday, 9 December, 2001, 13:35 GMT
Police hunt refugee smugglers
Police and pathologists next to the sealed-off lorry
Police and pathologists spent hours at the scene
An international police investigation has been launched after the bodies of eight refugees were found in a shipping container in Ireland.

Three of the dead were children - a boy aged about four and a boy and girl of 10 or 11 - one was a woman, and four were men, said police.

Post mortem examinations are being carried out on the bodies.

Five survivors aged from 17 to 35, including one woman, were found unconscious and are now in intensive care in Wexford, where their condition is described as "very serious", but improving.

The refugees - thought by police to be from Turkey - were discovered by the lorry driver when he delivered his cargo of office furniture at a business park.

Those involved in the cruel trade of trafficking in human beings have perpetrated yet another atrocity on the victims of their greed

Bertie Ahern, Irish Premier

Irish police are "actively investigating" the likelihood that the 13 had paid traffickers to organise their journey.

Irish Premier Bertie Ahern pledged to track down the criminals responsible.

"Those involved in the cruel trade of trafficking in human beings have perpetrated yet another atrocity on the victims of their greed," he said.

Police said on Saturday evening they still had to establish exactly where the refugees boarded the container.

Translators were called in to speak to the survivors - one of whom is a 17-year-old boy - but they have not yet been able to give much information.

Superintendent John Farrelly said Irish police were working with their counterparts in Belgium, Germany and Italy to trace the people responsible.

"All the police forces in Europe are aware of the situation," he said. "Let's hope we will find those people responsible, and this will never happen again."

Irish Justice Minister John O'Donoughue, who visited the scene and the hospital, said it was nearly impossible to prevent this kind of incident.

He said: "You can do your best with legislation, we have done that. You can do your best with resources. We have done that.

"We have put an as humane asylum system in this country as we possibly could ... but at the end of the day, there are people who will exploit all vulnerable human beings."

Laws questioned

The container began its journey in Milan, Italy, on 30 November. It then went to Cologne in Germany and left the port of Zeebrugge in Belgium, on Tuesday evening - arriving at Waterford port in Ireland on Thursday evening.

It is believed the refugees may have boarded the container in Belgium.

The driver, who was treated in hospital for shock after discovering the bodies, had collected the lorry from Waterford and driven it 40 miles (65km) to a business park in Wexford on Saturday.

After hearing noises from the rear of his vehicle, he discovered the seal of the container had been broken and found the refugees.

The case has already led to questions about asylum and immigration legislation in Europe.

Increased barriers to access to the EU force more people into the hands of the traffickers who show such callous disregard for human life

The Irish, Romanian, Italian and British Refugee Councils

The Irish, Romanian, Italian and British Refugee Councils issued a joint statement describing the deaths as "preventable".

"We fear that increased barriers to access to the EU force more people into the hands of the traffickers who show such callous disregard for human life.

"On the eve of the Laeken (EU) Summit we renew our urgent appeal to governments to ... ensure that those fleeing persecution have access to their territories without risking their lives in this way."

Irish ports have increasingly become targets for refugees, apparently lured by reports of jobs in the Irish economy, which until recently was the fastest growing in the euro zone.

Catholic Bishop of Ferns Dr Brendan Comiskey, whose diocese includes Wexford, called for a change of attitude towards the position of refugees.

"Europe is becoming known as 'Fortress Europe', instead of a family of nations," he said.

The BBC's Denis Murray
"The condition of the survivors horrified hospital staff"
The BBC's Jake Lynch
"It'll take some time to piece together their tragic story"
Refugee Law expert, Prof. Guy Goodwin-Gill
"We need to understand what it is that pushes people to leave their countries"
See also:

09 Dec 01 | Northern Ireland
Refugees seek Celtic Tiger
08 Sep 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Asylum: Then and now
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