LONDON (AP) — Six female migrants trapped inside a refrigerated food truck were rescued by French police after one of the women was able to make contact with a reporter, the BBC and French authorities said Thursday.
The women — four Vietnamese and two Iraqis — hid for hours in a truck loaded with boxes of bananas in northern France, believing the vehicle was on its way to the U.K. or Ireland.
When they realized that the truck was going in the wrong direction, they started to panic in the cold and cramped, dark space. One of them managed to reach a reporter with the BBC's Vietnamese service in London who helped the women alert French police Wednesday.
French prosecutor Laetitia Francart said the truck driver, who was in fact heading for Italy, was not at fault. The women told investigators that the driver wasn’t involved, “saying that they climbed aboard the truck thinking they were going to England because of the Irish registration plates,” Francart said in a statement.
“After several hours on the road without a stop, they realized their mistake and alerted a journalist," she added.
The BBC reporter said she didn’t know the migrants, but suggested she was contacted because of her reporting on Vietnamese migrants who suffocated in a truck four years earlier.
The broadcaster reported that the woman was able to send text messages, the truck's GPS location and short videos showing the conditions inside the truck. The women were shown sitting in a tight space on the floor, surrounded by boxes of fruit, panicking and struggling to breathe, according to the BBC.
The truck was just 6 degrees Celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit) inside, said Francart, Villefranche-sur-Saône’s prosecutor. The women were all wearing thick coats and had no health problems, she said.
French police soon tracked them down and intercepted the truck on a highway, the broadcaster said. Francart said the driver also called police after hearing noise coming from his trailer.
The six women were detained for being in France illegally before being released. Four were given 30 days to leave the country. The other two were permitted to stay to seek asylum. Francart provided no information on how the women arrived in France.
Thousands of migrants seeking a better life in the U.K. attempt to cross from northern France every year, either by hiding in trucks or onboard small, unseaworthy boats across the English Channel. Many of the migrants, who hail from countries including Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, are determined to make it across to the U.K. from mainland Europe because they can speak English, or because they already have relatives there.
Both routes can be perilous. In 2019, 39 migrants from Vietnam who paid large sums of money to human smugglers suffocated in a truck trailer in England.
In July, a Romanian man described by British prosecutors as part of an international human smuggling ring that made huge profits exploiting migrants was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison for the deaths. Four other gang members were imprisoned in 2021 for terms ranging from 13 to 27 years for manslaughter. A further 18 people were convicted in Belgium, where the Vietnamese ringleader was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government has taken an increasingly punitive approach to people who arrive by such unauthorized means.
The government has passed a controversial law calling for migrants who arrive on small boats to be detained and then deported permanently to their home nation or third countries. The only third country that has agreed to take them is Rwanda, and no one has yet been sent there because that plan is being challenged in the U.K. courts.
In France, authorities have taken steps to try to prevent migrants entering the country from outside Europe by beefing up its patrols of its southern border with Italy. Pope Francis has challenged French President Emmanuel Macron and other European leaders to open their ports to people fleeing hardship and poverty.
Leicester reported from Le Pecq, France.