London (CNSNews.com) - British customs officials early Monday found the bodies of 58 people in the back of a truck at the busy southeast English port of Dover, a discovery bound to inflame the continuing political dispute in Britain over political asylum.
Police believe the 54 men and four women were foreigners - possibly from China - seeking illegal entry into Britain by hiding in the back of a Dutch-registered refrigerated truck that crossed the English Channel on a ferry from Belgium.
Another two men were found alive on the truck and have been hospitalized. The vehicle's Dutch driver has been arrested.
It's possible the deaths were caused by suffocation, hypothermia or carbon monoxide poisoning. A spokesman for the Kent county police said the cause of death was under investigation. He said police also are tracing the route the 60 foreigners took into Britain.
Dead stowaways have been found aboard trucks in Dover harbor before, but never in such large numbers.
The government and charities working with refugees slammed the human trafficking trade thought to be behind the tragedy.
"The government is determined to continue to crack down on the evil trade in such
trafficking, whose perpetrators have no regard for human life," said Home Secretary Jack Straw, the minister whose department oversees immigration.
Ann Widdecombe, home affairs spokesperson for the opposition Conservative Party, called for greater international law-enforcement cooperation to stop the activity.
Foreigners seeking asylum in Europe face numerous dangers on the way. In the southeastern part of the continent - a common entry point from the East - more than 100 illegal immigrants have drowned in the past eight years while crossing the Aegean Sea towards Greece.
Early this year, six illegal immigrants from Iran died when a truck crammed with up to 80 people crashed in northern Greece.
Along with Germany, Britain receives the highest annual number of political asylum applications in Europe - more than 70,000 last year.
Most of those seeking asylum enter Britain illegally and then apply for permission to stay. \plain\lang2057\f2\fs23\cf0 Their origins range from Sri Lanka and China to Somalia and the Balkans.
About 80 percent of the applications are turned down, while the remainder are either accepted as political refugees or given "exceptional leave to remain" in the country. The government has a backlog of almost 100,000 cases.
A recent opinion poll conducted here showed that concern about immigration and race relations had risen to its highest level in more than 20 years. British voters now consider it the fourth most pressing domestic issue, after health, education and employment.
Under pressure from the Conservative Party - which says the UK is seen as too easy an option for "bogus" asylum-seekers - the Labor government recently announced a tightening up of procedures.
Anyone caught bringing aliens into the country illegally will be prosecuted and fined, and applicants will be held in detention centers during processing, rather than be allowed to move about freely, as was the case in the past.
The steps brought renewed criticism of the government, this time from smaller parties and human rights organizations which accused Labor ministers of clamping down in an attempt to regain lost voter support.
See Earlier Story:
UK Conservatives Criticize Government over Asylum Policy (25 April 2000)
Asylum-Seekers Prompt UK Political Flap (10 April 2000)