Essex lorry deaths: Vietnamese families fear for missing loved ones

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Relatives in Nghe An province, where 35 of the 39 dead are believed to be from, await worst news of all

Le Minh Tuan, the father of 30-year-old Le Van Ha, who is feared to be among the 39 people found dead in a lorry in Essex, holds Ha's five-year-old son.Photograph: Nhac Nguyen/AFP via Getty Images

The last time that Le Minh Tuan spoke to his son Le Van Ha, it was in a brief phonecall. "I have made it to France," Ha told his father on Monday, "and I am about to get in a car to England." It had been a long journey for Ha since he left his small farming community of Yen Hoi, in Vietnam's Nghe An province, in July, in search of better prospects. He had flown first to Ho Chi Minh City, then travelled to Malaysia, then Turkey, then Greece and finally to France.

But Ha, it seems, never made it to the UK, his final destination. The 30-year-old is likely among the 39 people found dead in the back of a lorry in Essex in the early hours of Wednesday, many of whom had begun their journey 6,000 miles away in the impoverished farming communities of Vietnam. The Vietnamese prime minister has ordered an investigation into human trafficking.

Essex lorry deaths: Vietnamese families fear for missing loved ones Le Van Ha, right, in his wedding day photograph.

Photograph: Lam Le

In Ha's family home, where large wedding photos of him and his wife hang on the walls, Tuan, 57, spoke of his devastation at the loss of his son. "Ha just wanted to provide for his family," he said. "He was a good man who never let anyone down." Ha, who had two sons - a three-month-old and a five-year-old - decided to travel to Europe after losing his job with the police and hearing of friends abroad who were prospering. The illegal journey did not come cheap but family and friends clubbed together, and Ha borrowed vast sums, to raise the 700m Vietnamese dong (GBP23,500) needed to pay the people smugglers.

The British and Vietnamese authorities have yet to confirm the identification of any of the bodies in the lorry, but Ha was among four people from the commune known to be boarding the lorry in France. The police have since visited Ha's parents twice to collect DNA samples. Tuan said he did not know how Ha had been travelling, but every time his son reached a new country, he would call home. "I do not know what Ha had planned to do when he reached England," said Tuan.

Father Anton Dang Huu Nam, a local priest who has been assisting the victims' families, led a memorial service on Saturday night at his church. He said 35 out of the 39 who died were from Nghe An province: 25 were from his district of Yen Thanh, while two were from nearby Dieu Chau district and another two from the city of Vinh; another six victims were from Ha Tinh district. "Among the people who died in the truck ... my sources indicate that most of them went through China, where they got fake passports," said Nam. "Families often pay around 1bn vietnamese dong to get to the UK."

Nam said he had been informed that some of the families of those who had died in the lorry had since received a refund from the traffickers. "The economic situation, environmental issues, the value of life, poor social security, education, culture, human rights abuses - all these issues make Vietnamese people not want to remain in Vietnam," said Nam. "They know it's dangerous but they feel they have to take a gamble for a better life."

Essex lorry deaths: Vietnamese families fear for missing loved ones Father Anton Dang Huu Nam led a memorial service to the victims at the weekend. Photograph: Lam Le

Nearby, in the house of Nguyen Dinh Tu, another of the suspected victims, the family had set up a memorial altar on a small table, covered with a shiny red table cloth and bearing his photo among offerings of fruit and flowers.

Tu's mother, Nyuyen Dinh Sat, lay on a mat before the altar, sobbing. "Do you love your parents, can you see me?" Sat cried out, reaching desperately for the picture of her son. "You said you'd go to bring money home to look after your father and mother." She collapsed into tears, with pleas of "son, son". Next to her, Tu's sister and aunt also sat crying. Tu's wife, Hoang Thi Thong, remained in hospital with their five-year-old son who is ill with pneumonia.

His family said Tu, who also had a one-year-old daughter, had travelled abroad in March to help his family, who had got 700m dong into debt building a house and paying medical bills for their sick children. "There are no jobs and no future here," said Tu's sister, Nguyen Thi Tan. The house, though newly built, had barely any furniture, with just a few wooden stools in the living room.

Tu had chosen to travel to Romania first because the journey to the UK was notoriously more dangerous and more expensive. His family said Tu paid traffickers 300m Vietnamese dong to reach Romania. However, after spending some months in Romania making little money, Tu decided to make the journey to the UK, where his father in law was now living, paying people smugglers another 350m dong.

The family has not had official confirmation that Tu was among the dead, but contacts in London have told the family that it is 90% certain given his dates of travel and when they lost contact with him. In the nearby commune of Dien Chau in Nghe An province, where many leave to make made the illegal journey to Europe, another family said they were in a state of suspended anxiety because they had just lost contact with their son who had recently travelled to the UK illegally. "We have a lingering hope that he just got detained which is why we have heard nothing from him," said a relative. In a cafe in Dien Chau, a local neighbour who asked to remain unnamed said: "It's very normal here for people to go abroad illegally for work, they go to make a living but have to accept the consequences."

He added: "No one has the option to go legally and so people have to make a choice: the riskier the path, the lower the cost.

Those that go to England tend to be those that want to turn around their lives fast but have to borrow big sums of money.

After this incident, fewer people will probably go to England but they'll just go elsewhere instead."



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