LONDON: Six female migrants trapped inside a refrigerated food truck were rescued by French police after one of the women made a distress call to 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 UK or Ireland.
When they realized that the truck was going the opposite way, they started to panic in the cold and cramped, dark space. One of them managed to reach a BBC reporter in London, who then 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 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 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 managed to intercept the truck on a highway, the broadcaster said. Francart said the driver also called the 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 so they could request asylum.
Thousands of migrants seeking a better life in the U.K. attempt to cross from northern France to Britain every year, either by hiding in trucks or onboard small, unseaworthy boats across the English Channel.
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 on their way to 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 UK courts.