Six women have been rescued from the back of a refrigerated lorry in France after a panicked text message to a BBC reporter set off a frantic cross-border search.
The women – four Vietnamese nationals and two from Iraq – spent more than 10 hours in the cramped space, surrounded by boxes of bananas, in hopes of making it to the UK or Ireland, according to the BBC.
When they realised that the lorry was heading in the opposite direction, they began to panic. As the air conditioning was turned on, sending the temperature in the tiny compartment plunging, one of the women managed to reach a BBC reporter in London.
“It’s so cold, it [the cooler] keeps blowing,” the woman told the reporter Khue B Luu over text message on Wednesday. She said the lorry doors had been sealed with an iron bar, meaning the women were trapped.
The woman sent Luu two short videos showing a space crammed with boxes, leaving just a few dozen centimetres of floor space where the women could sit. In one video, a woman could be heard saying in English: “I can’t breathe.”
The texter was able to share her live GPS location, allowing Luu to determine that the lorry was on the E15 highway near Dracé, north of Lyon.
Luu sprang into action, messaging colleagues in France. One of them contacted the police station closest to the lorry’s location, sending all the details Luu had gathered. As they waited anxiously for police to intervene, Luu continued to track the vehicle.
Fresh in her mind were the deaths of 39 Vietnamese nationals who suffocated in a lorry trailer in Essex in 2019, a tragedy that highlighted the perils often faced by migrants seeking a better life in the UK.
Luu realised the location sharing had been interrupted, but the young woman continued to send her text messages, telling her that the air conditioner had been turned off and complaining that they were having trouble breathing. “We’re so suffocated,” she wrote.
Luu, fearful that the women would not be able to hold out much longer, began trying to reassure the women, telling them to keep calm, to avoid talking in order to save air and reminding them that the police were on their way.
All the while, Luu kept a nervous watch over her computer and phone waiting for any updates.
She continued to communicate with the young woman who said three others had been about to climb into the lorry with them but had decided against it. Instead, one of them had taken a photo capturing the lorry’s Irish licence plate number.
Soon afterwards, French police said they had managed to intercept the lorry. The driver was arrested and an investigation has been launched amid suspicions of human trafficking.
Luu said she continued to text the woman. The messages were seemingly not read, suggesting the police may have confiscated the phone.
Hours later, a French prosecutor said the vehicle was from Lithuania and the driver was under investigation. The six women rescued from the lorry included one minor, the prosecutor said.
In writing about the events for the BBC, Luu drew a link between the women’s ordeal and the 2019 deaths in Essex. “Why, after the tragedy of 39 deaths in Essex in 2019, are there still young women from Vietnam getting into the back of a lorry to cross the border?” she wrote. “I can’t find any definitive answer.”