DOVER, England -- British customs officials searching a suspicious truck made a horrific discovery when they opened the back: the corpses of 58 illegal immigrants, apparently from the Far East, packed into a space that was supposed to hold a cargo of tomatoes.
Only two people were found alive in the Dutch-registered truck in the port of Dover, police said Monday. The survivors, both men, were hospitalized and were expected to recover, but were too traumatized to be questioned immediately.
''They are very, very important to the inquiry,'' said Kent county police spokesman Mark Pugash.
The 50-foot truck had crossed the English Channel on a ferry from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, authorities said. The dead -- 54 men and four women -- and the survivors appeared to be from the Far East, possibly Chinese, Britain's Home Office said.
The truck's refrigeration unit was turned off. Police would not speculate on whether the victims suffocated, but the truck left Belgium on the hottest day of the year in England and parts of northern Europe. Temperatures reached 86 degrees.
Police arrested the truck's Dutch driver and set up a temporary mortuary in Dover. Government leaders expressed horror and renewed pledges to crack down on the smuggling of illegal immigrants.
''It's the subject of a major criminal investigation,'' Prime Minister Tony Blair, meeting other European leaders in Portugal, said in a British Broadcasting Corp. radio interview. ''It underlines the importance of stamping out this trade in people.''
Smuggling illegal immigrants has become a profitable -- and dangerous -- business in Europe. International crime gangs who traffick in the trade charge up to $30,000 per person to smuggle the immigrants into affluent countries. At least 173 people drowned last year in the Adriatic attempting to cross from Albania to Italy.
In Sunday's case, customs officials said the truck, which arrived just before midnight, was searched because it fitted a ''profile'' of suspect vehicles. They refused to elaborate, but ferry operators P and O Stena Line said the vehicle aroused suspicion because it was registered to a company, Van Der Spek, which was unfamiliar. The truck's manifest said it was carrying tomatoes.
''The company had not used our route before and the driver paid the fare in cash at Zeebrugge,'' P and O Stena Line spokeswoman Vivienne Macey said.
Customs officials said the lone officer who discovered the bodies was ''pretty traumatized.'' British police and forces on the continent began trying to track the movements of the truck before it boarded the ferry.
This is a most terrible event,'' said Home Secretary Jack Straw, the government minister responsible for refugees. ''I am appalled by this loss of human life.''
The British government has acted in recent months to crack down on illegal immigrants and curb numbers of asylum seekers. Last year, roughly 71,000 people applied for asylum in Britain, claiming persecution in their homelands -- up from 46,000 in 1998. In April, the government introduced a fine of $3,000 per person on truckers caught smuggling illegal immigrants.
Refugee advocates condemned the immigrant smuggling rings, but said the main problem was that ''it is virtually impossible for people feeling persecution to enter Britain legally.''
''They are therefore forced to search for such desperate measures in their search for sanctuary,'' said Refugee Council chief executive Nick Hardwick.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.