DOVER, England - In a grisly case highlighting the trade of human smuggling into Britain, police yesterday sought to unravel the murky trail that left 58 immigrants dead here in the back of a sweltering truck.
The bodies of 54 men and four women were discovered late Sunday inside a refrigerated truck, which was shut off even though temperatures soared into the mid-80s Sunday, the hottest day of the year so far.
Two men who survived were hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening and were under police protection.
Authorities said all the victims appeared to be from Asia, probably China.
Police arrested and questioned the Dutch driver of the Dutch-registered truck that carried the immigrants on a 4 1/2 -hour freight-only ferry crossing from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge to Dover.
'There are a lot of questions," said Kent County police spokesman Mark Pugash.
"Who are they? Where are they from? How did they get there? Something involving that number of people from that distance does not happen spontaneously."
British Home Secretary Jack Straw said the victims "died a most terrible death."
He laid the blame for the tragedy on traffickers in human cargo who have set up lucrative networks to ferry illegal immigrants from as far as Asia, to points in Eastern Europe, and on to the West.
'These organized groups do not care about human safety, they care only for profit and this terrible tragedy is a grim reminder of this," Straw said in a statement in the House of Commons.
But Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary for the opposition Conservative party, said there are many who think "this is a tragedy that has been waiting to happen."
Widdecombe claimed the "rigor" for checking for illegal immigrants outside Britain "isn't what it might be."
In a drab port shed beneath the white cliffs of Dover, a lone customs' inspector made the initial discovery after the truck's arrival near midnight Sunday.
The truck was apparently flagged by a profiling system because the driver paid cash for the trip and the vehicle was registered to a one-man firm that was set up only a few days ago and was unknown to officials.
Normally, customs officials search for such items as illegal alcohol and cigarettes.
"The point at which you open the door, you have no idea of what you'll find," said Nigel Knott, a customs spokesman.
Knott said the bodies were behind pallets of tomatoes that served as a wall.
"It was after they were removed that the officers would have made this discovery," he said.
'The officers would go in, see the space behind, and they were confronted with this shocking scene."
Immigration is among the more divisive issues in Britain and other Western countries, which have seen a flood of newcomers in the wake of the fall of communism and wars in the Balkans.
Recent years have seen an influx of illegal immigrants from China, with many paying smugglers as much as $22,500 to make the perilous journey.
"I don't think it's any doubt that it's profitable," Pugash said of the smugglers. "If they're doing it, they're doing it for money, not charity."
Chinese trafficking gangs, known as "snakeheads," are sophisticated and dangerous, according to Britain's Press Association, transporting their human cargo through Eastern Europe.
Even when the immigrants get here, they are often under control of the gangs, who force them into low-paying jobs, including prostitution.
Sometimes, the gangs resort to kidnapping to force relatives back home to pay even more money.
The numbers of immigrants seeking legal asylum in Britain has skyrocketed in recent years, from 45,000 in 1998 to more than 71,000 in 1999.
That doesn't count the thousands of other illegal immigrants who never register with authorities.
Britain's Labor government said it's trying to crack down on illegal immigration, fining drivers who get caught hauling in refugees, tightening up benefits and attempting to disperse asylum seekers to areas away from coastal ports.
But the Conservatives claim Britain is a "soft touch," for refugees.
Party leader William Hague said the government should get tougher - and lock up asylum seekers while their cases are pending.
With its daily traffic of 4,000 trucks, and millions of passengers who stream through here every year, Dover is often a point of entry for those desperate to get into Britain.
On Folkestone Road, nicknamed "Asylum Alley," hotels and bed and breakfasts that once catered to tourists on their way to the continent have in recent years filled with asylum seekers trying to win the right to stay in Britain.
'The sudden sight of foreigners on streets and in shops was a shock," said Gill Casebourne of the Kent Refugee Action Network.
Last summer, tempers flared and finally boiled over during a carnival, with running battles reported between immigrants and city residents.
But Mick Mahoney, a retired schoolteacher, insists, 'The tolerance in Dover is a lot more than the media would have you believe."
Some immigrants, he added, came from "the most appalling, atrocious conditions."