Police at the scene where 39 bodies were discovered in a truck container, in Essex, U.K., on October 23. Photo: peter nicholls/Reuters

LONDON—British police said the 39 people found dead in a refrigerated trailer on an industrial park near London were believed to be Chinese nationals, as investigations into how they came to the U.K. spread to Northern Ireland and Belgium.

Police in Essex, where the bodies were found in the early hours of Wednesday morning, said in a statement Thursday that eight of the deceased are women and 31 are men. “All are believed to be Chinese nationals,” the statement said.

Police arrested a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland on suspicion of murder shortly after the discovery was made at the Waterglade Industrial Park, just east of London. Detectives have searched three properties in County Armagh in connection with the investigation, but police said they wouldn’t speculate on the identity of the driver after local press reports named him, citing police and other sources. He has been detained for an additional 24 hours, police said.

Prosecutors in Belgium said separately they had begun an investigation into how the truck trailer was transported from the port of Zeebrugge to Purfleet in Essex.

“This is an incredibly sensitive and high-profile investigation, and we are working swiftly to gather as full a picture as possible as to how these people lost their lives,” Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mill said. “Our recovery of the bodies is ongoing and the post-mortem and identification processes, which will be lengthy and complex, can then begin.”

Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television said the Chinese Embassy in the U.K. is in communication with the British police and has sent officials to the site of the incident to confirm details.

Authorities opened a murder investigation after emergency responders alerted police to the discovery of the bodies shortly before 1:40 a.m. on Wednesday. All were pronounced dead at the scene and police teams are still in the process of identifying the victims, which officials warned could be a lengthy process.

The incident has sharpened concerns about the reach and methods of criminal trafficking gangs. Investigators are focusing their inquiry on the exact route the 39 victims took to get to the U.K. in the hope it will provide further clues to their identity and the identity of those who helped them enter the country.

Prosecutors in Belgium Thursday said preliminary investigation showed that the trailer arrived at Zeebrugge port on Oct. 22 and left the same afternoon, arriving in Purfleet at around 1 a.m. on Oct. 23.

“It is not yet clear when the victims were placed in the container and whether this happened in Belgium,” the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office in Brussels said.

The rig unit, meanwhile, traveled from Northern Ireland, passing into Ireland before crossing over the Irish Sea to disembark at Holyhead port in Wales on Oct. 20.

The rig then collected the trailer at Purfleet before stopping at the industrial park, before the ambulance service was alerted at 1:40 a.m. Emergency responders then informed police.

The rig carried Bulgarian plates and was registered in the Bulgarian seaside city of Varna by a company owned by an Irish citizen, according to the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry. National radio in Sofia reported that the truck left the country on June 20, 2017, a day after it was registered.

There have been previous instances of people from China attempting to enter Britain illegally.

Fifty-eight Chinese nationals suffocated to death in the back of a lorry at the port of Dover in 2000.

The problem was highlighted further in 2004 when 21 illegal immigrants, again from China, drowned or succumbed to hypothermia when they were cut off by the tide when harvesting cockles in Morecambe Bay in northern England.

Write to James Hookway at james.hookway@wsj.com

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