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Moment that mattered: Thirty-nine Vietnamese people are found dead in a lorry in Essex

British Police officers in forsensic suits work near a lorry, found to be containing 39 dead bodies, as they work inside a police cordon at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, east of London, on October 23, 2019. - Britain launched a major murder investigation after 39 bodies were found Wednesday in a truck from Bulgaria, as police tried to establish where the victims were originally from. All the victims were pronounced dead at the scene in an indusTrial park in Grays, east of London, triggering revulsion among politicians and once again putting the spotlight on the shadowy people trafficking business. (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP) (Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)


A police officer in a forensic suit works near a lorry, found to contain 39 dead bodies at Waterglade Industrial Park, Essex

On 23rd October, the bodies of 31 men and eight women were found in a refrigerated trailer at an industrial park in the town of Grays in Essex. The following day Essex Police announced that the victims were Chinese nationals, but later it transpired that they were in fact Vietnamese. “When I first heard the news I thought to myself ‘at least some of them have to be Vietnamese’,” says Mimi Vu, an independent anti-trafficking advocate and consultant based in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. “It’s not uncommon for Vietnamese to travel with Chinese papers. I understand how the wrong assumption was made.” An estimated 18,000 Vietnamese people are smuggled into Europe every year and it’s believed that as many as 20,000 undocumented Vietnamese currently live in the UK.

The 39 people discovered in Grays died of lack of oxygen and overheating in an enclosed space, according to police. In the days after they were discovered, heart-rending stories emerged about some of the victims, two of whom were aged just 15. Hours before her death, Pham Thi Tra My, a 26-year-old from Hà Tĩnh province in central Vietnam, sent a text message to her mother saying she was dying and that she was sorry for failing in her journey. Her family had reportedly remortgaged their home to raise the £30,000 demanded by traffickers. “People pay the traffickers a range of prices [to get to the UK],” says Vu. “With the more expensive packages you may have legal visas, you may travel mostly by air. But in the end, regardless of how much you pay, you end up in France waiting to board a lorry.”

A couple of years ago, Vu says, most trafficked Vietnamese waiting for these dangerous rides to the UK found themselves in a squalid forest camp to the south-east of Calais nicknamed ‘Vietnam City’. After it was dismantled by French police, a series of smaller, temporary hidden camps popped up around northern France but on her most recent visit to France Vu couldn’t find any of them. “The migrants seem to have gone underground,” she says.

“In the end, regardless of how much you pay, you end up in France waiting to board a lorry”

Vu is often taken aback by the business acumen and logistical ingenuity of the organised crime groups running the trafficking networks. Whenever they encounter obstacles, they find solutions, whether that means identifying hiding places in northern France or developing complex new routes out of Vietnam to take advantage of obscure visa schemes and legal loopholes. “These Vietnamese-led organised crime groups run extremely complex operations and have people all over the world,” she says. “The bosses are very pragmatic; they have no ideological or religious considerations and will work with anyone as long as there’s money to be made.” As borders in many countries tighten, there’s no longer a ‘typical’ route from Vietnam to the UK, Vu says. “In the past migrants would always go through Russia and former Soviet bloc countries where there are large diaspora communities. It would be east to west. But now you have Vietnamese travelling through visa-free countries such as Panama or Haiti on to Europe.”

Before they reach the final – and most dangerous – leg of the journey to the UK, Vietnamese migrants often spend months, sometimes years, in an extremely vulnerable situation. According to a 2019 report co-authored by Anti-Slavery International on the trafficking of Vietnamese to the UK, “exploitation and abuse of victims” happens at every stage of the journey. “There are many opportunities for exploitation,” says Vu. “For example in Russia they might be forced to work in a sweatshop. Women and children are at extremely high risk of sexual abuse. During my research I interviewed a Vietnamese-German social worker who works extensively with the Vietnamese community in Berlin and she said: ‘I cannot remember the last time I worked with an irregular female Vietnamese migrant who had not been raped or sexually abused on her journey.’” Vu says that many young men are also sexually abused en route.

“For generations they’ve seen proof that going to the UK works, through the homes that have been built, the motorcycles that have been bought”

When asked why so many Vietnamese continue to pay smugglers vast amounts of money despite such risks, Vu points to the end of the Vietnam War and the first of several waves of migration, which resulted in large diaspora communities all over the world. This fostered what Vu calls a “remittance culture”, especially in the central Vietnamese provinces from which the Essex lorry victims came. This culture has seen individual family members from each successive generation be sent overseas to become the main breadwinner.

Vu says that she has spent years trying to provide people in these Vietnamese provinces with a realistic picture of life as a trafficked migrant: the dangerous journey, the sexual exploitation, the awful living and working conditions they may face in the UK, often at nail bars or cannabis farms. The reasons the people she speaks to don’t seem to be deterred are largely cultural, she says, pointing to the important role of sacrifice in Vietnam – parents make sacrifices for their children, who must later repay the debt and go overseas to support the family. More pertinently, this is a part of the country where people see the results of ‘remittance culture’ every day: “For generations they’ve seen proof that going to the UK works, through the homes that have been built, the motorcycles that have been bought,” Vu says. “I do outreach in schools [in the region] and I see nine- and ten-year-olds saying ‘My dream is to go overseas to work.’”

The Essex lorry deaths were a huge news story in Vietnam. “That’s one silver lining of this tragedy,” Vu says. “I don’t have to work quite so hard to convince people that this might happen to you if you go on this journey. Before this, nobody knew the truth. If parents asked how the journey to the UK was, their children would say it was great because nobody wanted to tell the truth – they didn’t want to shame their parents, they didn’t want to lose face. So people lied. This tragedy has blown the myth apart, but that’s not deterring people from going. Now people are just paying a higher price for ‘guaranteed safety to the UK’, which of course does not exist.”

The size and power of the organised crime groups running the trafficking trade are not the only reason prevention on the Vietnamese side is a challenge. It’s also in part because people are rarely trafficked out of the country itself – the initial journey out of Vietnam, often to Russia or China, is usually a legal one and the actual trafficking happens further down the line. Another problem is that under Vietnamese law a 16-year-old is considered an adult, making it harder to protect 16- and 17-year-olds.

Police in the UK and Vietnam have made progress bringing those responsible for the 39 deaths to justice – on 21st February 2020 seven people in Vietnam were charged with being involved in the victims’ trafficking. The driver of the lorry, Maurice Robinson, admitted to conspiring to assist illegal immigration at the Old Bailey in November 2019 and has been charged with 39 counts of manslaughter. Three other men in the UK have been accused of involvement. On 4th February the Essex coroner confirmed that inquests into the 39 deaths will be opened.

For the families of the victims, however, the tragedy of losing a loved one is likely to be accompanied by financial ruin. “No, no,” Vu replies when asked if the families can expect to receive any compensation. “To the best of my knowledge they will still be obligated to pay the original debt to the traffickers as well as the debt they had to go into to get the bodies repatriated.” And then the rising debts, she says, become a driver for more family members to attempt the trip overseas.

How can this problem of trafficking from Vietnam be solved? “Governments, NGOs, the private sector and local community leaders in Vietnam must form partnerships to fund and implement prevention programmes that address the root causes of why people go on this journey, while providing access to safe migration information and education, and employment opportunities in Vietnam,” says Vu. “And law enforcement from many countries must work together to disrupt the organised crime groups’ lucrative smuggling and trafficking trade. I am optimistic that the human-trafficking cycle can be broken, but it won’t be easy.”


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