Vietnamese migrants undeterred by Essex lorry deaths

“I am really, really sorry, Mum and Dad, my trip to a foreign land has failed,” Pham Thi Tra My, 26, texted her parents in words reported around the world. “I am dying, I can’t breathe,” she said, as she and 38 other Vietnamese migrants were suffocating inside a refrigerated lorry trailer bound from Belgium to the UK whose power had not been turned on. “I love you very much, Mum and Dad.” The young woman’s words created a sensation in Vietnam and cast the global industry of people smuggling in an even harsher light. The UK is one of the top destinations for Vietnamese migrants, who often pay smugglers to get them into the country.

Once they arrive, they usually work in nail salons, restaurants or on cannabis farms. The scale of the problem exposed by the 2019 tragedy was shocking, too. In Vietnam, when news of the 39 people found dead in Essex hit social media, many other families desperately posted messages because they mistakenly thought their children were in the truck.

“The day the lorry went to Essex, it was not the only lorry,” says Diep Vuong, president and co-founder of the Pacific Links Foundation, a group that fights the trafficking of women and young people. “There were at least three of them. Many families who thought their relatives were on this ill-fated Essex 39 lorry had posted on social media praying for their safety, but then later said that these relatives arrived safely.”

The lorry in which the migrants died is taken for examination.

Four men were jailed for manslaughter over their role in the tragedy (C) Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty

When seven men were put on trial in London last year for their involvement in the deaths of the 39, the Old Bailey heard that the gang had been smuggling people undetected for many months. In Vietnam and globally, the tragedy has provoked soul-searching and raised questions. Why would economic migrants risk their lives to travel to Britain under dangerous conditions for menial, undocumented work when Vietnam’s growing economy is creating millions of new jobs?

Who was to blame for the racket in the UK and Vietnam? And how might young people be warned about the risk of paying for an illegal passage? “It takes these cases that emerge every few years to put the spotlight on migrant smuggling,” says Rebecca Miller, regional co-ordinator on human trafficking at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Bangkok. “The lorry deaths were just one tragedy but cross-border movements like these have been occurring daily.”

Officials seeking to combat migrant and human trafficking say it is hard to document the scale of the problem because of a lack of accurate data and information-sharing between countries. Vietnamese migrants coming to the UK, for example, typically leave by air, flying to a transit country such as China or Russia. Then, they make their way to the EU, passing through the Schengen Area, where there are no internal border checks.

Those in the ill-fated Essex lorry arrived in the UK via Zeebrugge, Belgium. International law draws a distinction between human trafficking and people smuggling as, theoretically, the latter involves consent. The line blurs, however, when migrants who have paid smugglers enter a destination country where their undocumented status makes them liable to exploitation.

They become trafficked people.

More stories from this report

Will ‘Global Britain’ clamp down on money laundering? How Kenya turned the tide against ivory poachers Covid crisis boosts India’s trade in fake medicines

Pandemic accelerates growth in cybercrime Mexican drug cartels see big profits in fentanyl Streaming pirates threaten sports leagues’ income

Illicit trade thrives as South Africa bans alcohol and tobacco sales Latin American drugs cartels in lucrative tie-up with ‘Ndrangheta “People are paying excessive fees for their migration,” points out Brett Dickson, head of programmes with the International Organisation for Migration in Hanoi. “This makes them indebted and much more vulnerable — once they complete the journey — to being exploited or becoming victims of forced labour and violence, as they have to repay these fees.”

Most of the migrants who suffocated in the Essex-bound lorry were from Nghe An and Ha Tinh, two northern provinces with traditions of migration. While Vietnam has one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, both provinces were historically poor and many young people today still go abroad for work. “[They] have a long history of migration — not just overseas, but in Vietnam,” says Tran Thi Hong, a project officer at the International Labour Organization in Hanoi.

She adds, however: “Poverty is just one of the reasons people leave. Often they have family members who went abroad and selectively listen to the ‘success stories’, so they do it too.”

Vietnamese migrants undeterred by Essex lorry deathsA river scene in Nghe An, Vietnam.

The historically poor northern province has a tradition of migration (C) Nhac Nguyen/AFP via Getty Images

After the lorry tragedy, police from Essex visited Vietnam, leading to investigations and convictions there. Gareth Ward, the UK ambassador in Vietnam, warned would-be migrants not to “gamble with your future”. In Britain, four of the men tried at the Old Bailey were jailed in January for manslaughter.

During the trial, prosecutors said the migrants inside the trailer had used a metal pole to try to punch through the roof as the temperature reached 38C.

However, there are signs that the story, despite the gruesome detail, is being forgotten in Vietnam. Would-be migrants choose to listen to the compelling tales, often exaggerated, about the money that can be earned overseas. “The hard facts about life in the UK for migrants are not getting out, says Vuong, whose charity runs programmes in schools. “The hard facts about the cost structure are not getting out.

This information is not sexy enough.” As part of its work, the ILO is trying to raise awareness of the legal and safe paths for people who want to make their living overseas. Vietnam has, for example, work agreements with Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

According to labour ministry statistics, more than 147,000 Vietnamese worked abroad legally in 2019. “People who lost work opportunities as a consequence of Covid will be looking for new opportunities,” says Dickson. “We want to make sure people are aware of the risks.” Lorries carrying migrants are still crossing the English Channel and North Sea, however.

In February alone, three men fighting for breath in a trailer in Brampton, Cambridgeshire, were rescued after calling police, according to the BBC; days later, another 18 were found in a lorry in nearby Peterborough.

Additional reporting by Pham Hai Chung in Hanoi