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When news of the Essex lorry tragedy—where 39 bodies were found in the back of a lorry—first broke, I knew in my gut the victims were Vietnamese. A decade ago, I’d spent my university years interpreting for Vietnamese migrants in the UK in all sorts of circumstances—at a hospital, a lawyer’s office, an immigration detention centre.
Now, the private lives of undocumented Vietnamese migrants in the UK—people used to living the shadows—have suddenly become the centre of attention, exposed to the world for people to see, ponder, grieve, but also judge.
Making the news
Before this, undocumented Vietnamese rarely made the news in the UK. When they did, it’d likely be an article about a busted cannabis farm run by Vietnamese gangs, or reports on victims of modern slavery paying off their huge debts in nail salons. The narrative was black and white: some were victims lured by traffickers, others were criminals.
As a journalist, I saw the sudden interest in Vietnamese migrants in Europe as a rare opportunity to debunk the many dehumanising myths and stereotypes surrounding migrants. In a political climate where immigration has been held up as a bogeyman out of political expediency, migrants have often been portrayed as money-hungry, lazy criminals, pushing British immigration policy more and more towards a system that assesses an economic migrant’s skills based primarily on their paycheque rather than any other qualification. The term “economic migrant” itself has somehow become derogatory, as if migrating for economic reasons is something to be frowned upon.
My mission was to document the grief and find answers, to learn how migrants make their way from Vietnam to the UK, and why would they’d undertake such a treacherous journey. But how do you explain a phenomenon that’s been quietly going on for decades to a global audience in 800 words?
Telling the story right
A man from Dien Chau, a district in Nghe An province in north central Vietnam, where some of the victims came from, was sceptical that the media would get it right. “The families [of the victims] may answer your questions but you won’t truly get it unless you have lived here,” he told me one October afternoon after I, alongside a dozen other journalists from all over the world, showed up in Nghe An and Ha Tinh to meet families who feared their loved ones were among the victims.
The last time these provinces made headlines internationally was in 2016, when a toxic spill from the Taiwanese steel plant Formosa killed over 100 tonnes of fish alongside 200km of Vietnam’s coastline. The government itself estimated it would take a decade for central Vietnam to completely recover from this catastrophe.
The media made sure the Formosa incident was mentioned, alongside stories of impoverished families who’d mortgaged their homes to pay traffickers up to £34,000 (US$43,688) to make the treacherous journey to the UK, either via China or Russia, through the Ukrainian forests, and finally across the English channel in the back of a lorry.
The Dien Chau man’s words of wisdom lingered as I followed the discussions. While the narrative of poverty and environmental destruction was sufficient to draw sympathies in the UK, this, as told by the media, was in essence a Vietnamese tragedy.
What was missing was a consideration of rising global inequality, where money, rather than humanity, talks. Little has been said of how the UK’s increasingly strict border controls have only pushed migrants to pursue more dangerous routes across the English Channel. Or, as a simpler rhetorical question: how would those 39 victims have been treated had they been found alive?
How would those 39 victims have been treated had they been found alive?
They would have been detained, like the UK Home Office detained the man I interpreted for over a decade ago when he was appealing his deportation order after having been found in the back of a lorry. He’d told me then that he wanted to appeal until he no longer could, just to extend his time in the UK. The centre where he was detained, Oakington, was subsequently shut down in 2010 after the death of a detainee and reports of poor safety conditions.
While a lot of sympathy has been extended to the 39 victims, I also saw an opposite reaction on social media in Vietnam. Tales of poverty might have been sufficient to draw sympathy from audiences worldwide, but wasn’t quite enough in Vietnam, where almost every family still has memories of abject poverty experienced during and after the Vietnam War.
People argued that poverty shouldn’t be an excuse for breaking the law, or condemned migrants for being irresponsible young fathers leaving wives and children behind. Others concluded that the migrants had been blinded by greed for big houses and flashy cars, or duped by evil traffickers who belong in prisons. Sympathetic voices pleaded for would-be migrants to go through legal channels that would allow them to work in Japan, South Korea or Poland.
Such arguments have one thing in common: they dehumanise migrants by characterising them as individuals who are morally corrupt, materialistic, or naive and stupid, without considering the unique circumstances that had put them on that tragic path. It’s perhaps the cynical public that needs more awareness, rather than the migrants themselves.
The push and pull of migration
I’d hoped that at least the Vietnamese would rally in solidarity to demand dignified labour migration programmes between Vietnam and destination countries facing labour shortages. If a worker in Vietnam wanted to work at a nail salon in London, there’s no way they could do it legally, despite the obvious demand. The UK has no official recruitment channel for such “low-skilled” jobs for Vietnamese nationals.
That was the main message a woman in her 50s, and a friend of the family of Hoang Van Tiep from Dien Chau, a confirmed victim, asked me to deliver to the public.
“They’re not slaves lured by traffickers,” she said in a passionate speech, without giving me her name. “They’re free people who want a dignified life, but the conditions we’re in have compelled them to take up an undignified path in the back of a lorry.”
It’s not that people aren’t aware of legal, labour migration channels, she said. The problem is that brokers charge exorbitant pre-departure fees and other service fees throughout the job programme, leaving workers with little to no money to send home.
“They’re free people who want a dignified life, but the conditions we’re in have compelled them to take up an undignified path in the back of a lorry.”
Her claim is supported by industry data. A Vietnamese worker has to pay between US$4,000 and US$7,000 to secure a three-year contract in Taiwan, the highest among all labour-sending countries. This puts Vietnamese workers in a debt bondage situation, forcing them to work for more than three years before they’re able to send any money home. It’s no surprise that so many “missing workers” in Taiwan are Vietnamese.
On the other hand, one could recoup costs more quickly—perhaps in two years— if one were to migrate illegally to the UK, the woman told me. After five years, you’ll have enough money to build a big house, she said, pointing at the house in front of her, built with remittances from Poland. A report by the Pacific Links Foundation confirms this, saying that “a typical form of deceit involves individuals being promised [by traffickers] they will earn £1,500 (US$1,930) per month working in a Vietnamese-owned nail salon in London, with their monthly living expenses capped at £500 (US$643).”
While young people across Vietnam are leaving the countryside en masse in search of work, their destinations and options depend on a myriad of factors: education, personal connections, the family’s ability to borrow money, and the precarity of their economic background. The poorest are stuck with farming or street vending, while the better-off join the many foreign-invested factories. Those who can take up thousand-dollar loans to pay brokers and find work in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea or Qatar.
None of these options, however, offer the same prospect of some long-term security as the illegal path to Europe, promised by traffickers and backed by the infamous billionaire villages where many of the Essex lorry victims came from.
Pham Thi Tra My from Ha Tinh was one of them. Before embarking on the journey to the UK, she’d worked in Japan, but that wasn’t enough to pay off family debts.
In today’s Vietnam, if you don’t have a university degree, contacts in the political or business elite, and safety nets to fall back upon, you’re almost destined to live paycheque to paycheque. A sickness in a family, a run-down house that desperately needs repairs—these were the stories of Bui Thi Nhung and Nguyen Dinh Tu, two of the confirmed victims from Yen Thanh district in Nghe An. It wasn’t poverty per se that had pushed them to make the journey to the UK, but the certainty of the entire family ending up penniless if they didn’t go bold and go big.
As I travelled from one district to another to meet the then-suspected victims’ families, I marvelled at the lush green mountains of Nghe An. At that time, I had no idea that, just a few months earlier, the scene looked nothing short of apocalyptic, after wildfires had burned the area down to the ground. The fires were caused mostly by hot and dry winds from Laos that blow through north central Vietnam every year. This year, the situation was exacerbated by record high temperatures recorded in the region. Just in April, Vietnam observed its highest temperature ever recorded in Ha Tinh, at 43.4˚C.
Like the forests, the lives of the people in Nghe An and Ha Tinh, where most of the victims came from, could be rich and green one day, but burnt to a crisp the next. But unlike the forests, the 39 Essex lorry victims won’t be able to return to tell us the full extent of their story. And because of that, we don’t have the right to judge their past choices.
I remember something that my late father—himself a son of Nghe An province, who’d broken his scholarship terms to remain in Poland after completing his PhD so that my family could enjoy the privileges we have today—said: “In the tumultuous life of the Vietnamese community under the shadows of the Western sky, a biography, name, surname are no longer reliable sources.”
The families won’t tell journalists the whole story, the Dien Chau man told me, to protect their relatives who’d safely made the journey to the West, and those still planning to follow in their footsteps. Unless the world stops criminalising migrants, many will choose to accept undignified paths and working conditions, instead of telling their whole story—which is why there’s still so much we don’t understand about the complex push-and-pull that shapes the movement of people.
I’ll end by going back to the family friend of Hoang Van Tiep, herself the mother of a son who has overstayed his student visa in Australia: “In Vietnam, we have an excess supply of workers. All we want is for there to be affordable means to find work legally in countries where there’s a shortage of workers.”