Catholics have expressed their sadness and outrage after the bodies of 39 people – believed to have been illegal immigrants – were found in a lorry container in eastern England.

Driving the news

Essex police confirmed in a statement Wednesday that the bodies of 38 adults and a teenager had been found in a truck at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays.

The nationalities of the victims were not immediately known, but police suggested the vehicle could have entered the UK via Belgium.

Authorities also said that although the tractor unit (front section) of the lorry originated in Ireland, it appeared as though the truck was registered in Bulgaria.

The driver of the truck has been arrested.

Asylum seekers are travelling more and more frequently to Western Europe hidden in trucks from Bulgaria since the completion of a fence on the Bulgaria-Turkey border in 2016, paying as much as $12,900 to traffickers for the passage.

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Go deeper

“This is devastating news”, lamented Sarah Teather, Director of Jesuit Refugee Service UK.

“We know very little about the people who lost their lives at this point, but they are someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, father, mother, friend or neighbour. We pray for those who died and for their families and friends.

“The desperation of those in the container is an indictment of our failure to provide sanctuary to those in flight for their lives. This horrendous tragedy highlights the urgent need for more safe and legal routes to migrate and to seek asylum.

“If the government wants to ensure this does not happen again, it is not enough to focus only on criminal gangs – it must ensure that those seeking sanctuary in Britain can get here safely. It must build bridges, not walls”.

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Why it matters

Italian Church group Sant’Egidio, long known and appreciated for its work with migrants and refugees, called the discovery of the bodies in Essex a “tragedy” that is “unacceptable for a Europe of human rights”.

Sant’Egidio called on authorities to “quickly take measures to stem the sorrowful number of deaths of the journeys of hope” of migrants and refugees.

Such measures, Sant’Egidio said, could include the “re-opening of regular entrances for employment reasons, given also the existing, strong demand of labour in different sectors of the European economy”.

Sant’Egidio also said there is a pressing “need to foster humanitarian corridors” for migrants and refugees to reach Europe safely and legally.

“We believe it necessary to point towards a consistent and renewed cooperation with the countries of origin of immigration, to offer young people a future there where they live, without them feeling tempted to offer their lives and destiny to human traffickers”, Sant’Egidio added.

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For the record

For his part, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), said the 39 deaths were a “scandal” in the face of which Christians “cannot be silent”.

“In Europe we talk about Christian identity, but I wonder, how can we talk about Christian identity if people continue to die like this and these tragedies no longer affect us?”, Hollerich lamented.

“We must ensure that everyone feels welcomed… That these men and women who flee from situations of war, poverty [and] injustice know that they do not need these clandestine ways to enter our countries”, the cardinal added.

“I pray for those who lost their lives. God is God of life, not of death. God gave life but not to lose it that way. It is therefore a very great sin”.

Renewing his plea for refugee and migrant humanitarian corridors to Europe, Hollerich warned that the dead “shout” for an ordered European migration policy, “at least to help refugees”.

“But it is not enough: we must also help the countries from which the migrants flee, and not with a small contribution of money but by preparing a large project, an aid plan”, the cardinal explained.

Hollerich insisted that a new European migration plan is urgent, since “climate change will make this situation even more difficult and the number of migrants is set to increase”.

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