DUBLIN, Ireland – Hearing faint pounding and moaning, an Irish trucker discovered the bodies of eight would-be refugees and five people clinging to life in his cargo Saturday. Police said they would mount a Europe-wide hunt for the human traffickers believed responsible.
It was the first mass fatality involving asylum-seekers in Ireland, which in recent years has been targeted by rings that smuggle people from poorer countries. Police said they weren't sure of the victims' nationalities but were interviewing a 17-year-old survivor who spoke Turkish. Among the dead were three small children.
The deaths highlighted the great risks that many people run in their efforts to evade police to enter western European countries illegally. Like others, Ireland has tightened its security at ports of entry and toughened deportation laws to try to stem the human tide.
"Those involved in the cruel trade of trafficking in human beings have perpetrated yet another atrocity on the victims of their greed," said Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.
Last year, 58 Chinese people were found suffocated in the back of a truck at the southern English port of Dover. The Dutch driver was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The refugees heading to Ireland were hidden inside a container carrying office furniture that made a journey across Europe. The container was loaded in Italy, shipped by rail to Belgium, and left Tuesday from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge bound for the southeast Irish port of Waterford. The boat had also recently stopped in Cologne, Germany.
"It's very difficult to say how long they may have been in that container," said Superintendent John Farrelly, a police spokesman.
The trucker loaded the container onto his vehicle Saturday morning at Waterford port, Farrelly said, then stopped at a business center about 40 miles away and heard faint sounds of pounding and moaning. Inside he found eight people dead, five adults and three children, and five people seriously ill, apparently suffering from lack of oxygen.
The dead were four men, a woman, a boy of about 4, and a boy and girl, both about 10 or 11, Irish police said. The survivors, a woman and four men between 17 and 35 years old, were taken to nearby Wexford General Hospital.
Farrelly ruled out the possibility that the refugees had got into the container themselves.
"The people in the container have been assisted in some way, because of the tampering with the seal. They had to be assisted into the container ... but precisely where this happened we don't yet know," he said.
He said Irish police would work with their counterparts in Belgium, Germany and Italy to try to trace the people who arranged for the people to be smuggled inside.
"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."
Ireland traditionally suffered from mass emigration, not immigration. But that changed dramatically in the late 1990s once word spread about the country's booming economy and lax immigration controls. In recent times an average of 1,000 people a month have arrived illegally, about half of them from Romania and Nigeria.
The government has established refugee camps throughout the country for people to wait while their asylum claims are processed. But most cases end in rejection and deportation. The government has also sought to deter the traffic, most dramatically by striking a deal with France to deploy Irish police at French ferry ports where hundreds of would-be-immigrants had been boarding passenger ferries each week.
Those routes have been virtually shut down to asylum-seekers. But Saturday's tragic crew reached Ireland on a twice-weekly cargo route from Belgium to Waterford, a small port with less official scrutiny.
Some politicians appealed, immediately after the deaths, for Ireland to lead efforts to help people in the countries that are the source of the emigration.
"What is it that drives fellow Europeans to take this course of action?" asked Avril Doyle, who represents Wexford in the Irish senate. "And why can't the authorities help them before they get this desperate?"