The Deeper Questions Raised by Essex Lorry Deaths
Following the tragedy of the 39 Vietnamese in the lorry in Essex I felt that, as I have spent years living in Vietnam, and given my friends and experiences there, I had to reflect on the hopes and needs of the Vietnamese people. Especially those in Central Vietnam who are driven to seek better futures for themselves and how difficult this can be.
I lived in both Saigon, and Ha Noi, for eight years altogether during which time I saw many changes and a lot of development. Viet Nam grew into a developing country and expects to be a developed country by 2020. Something that hasn’t changed is the beauty of Viet Nam: the beauty of the scenery, and of the people. Vietnamese people are generous, and kind with a great sense of humour. They are either laughing at themselves, at you, or with you – and sometimes all three!
The Vietnamese prove the kindness of strangers over and over again, and will invariably help you out of difficulties, or willingly share what little they have. I once went to a ‘local’ hairdresser – which was literally in a shack at the side of the road. I paid the equivalent of 40p for my hair wash, which included an hours’ head and face massage.
However, as I was there around lunchtime they insisted on sharing their meal with me. Also, whilst there they noticed that my bike had a slow puncture. So the hairdresser’s son was sent off to get my bike repaired.
Despite my protestations and attempts to give more money they would not countenance accepting anything more than the ‘foreigner’ rate for the hair wash! So, for the grand total of 40p I had my hair done, had my lunch, and had my bike repaired. Over time, I became friends with the family, attending their celebrations, and taking ‘Western’ things as gifts following trips home.
Another time my motorbike broke down on a dusty lane on a very hot day. There was nothing for it but to push (a pretty heavy bike) until I found a repair place. All of a sudden a young man appeared, on his bike. Driving alongside me, using his foot on my footboard he pushed my bike (with me on it) to the nearest repair place. Before I could say anything he gave me one last push so that I would freewheel into the repair shop, then he turned around and drove back the way he had come. He had literally gone out of his way to help me.
How does Viet Nam’s past affect its present?
One of my Vietnamese friends, Ha, who now lives in the USA, thinks before we consider ‘why’ the 39 people were in the lorry we should consider ‘when.’ By this she means considering the history of Viet Nam that has placed the country, and its people, where they are today.
The current population of Viet Nam is 93 million people. Since the Fall of Saigon in 1975, an estimate of over five million Vietnamese have fled the country as political refugees to reside in democratic Western countries. This estimated number does not include the documented and undocumented deaths during the journey to the chosen “Land of the Free” nor does it include those Vietnamese currently residing abroad in other, perhaps undocumented, contexts.
“Ever since the historical Fall of Saigon, hundreds of thousands of people have passed on before us on their journeys to a better land where basic human rights and better living conditions are possible and respected lawfully. So to say, though the loss of those 39 souls are now pronounced to be directly linked to an infamous human trafficking operation, it is also indirectly linked to the geopolitics of Viet Nam itself.”
In 1954, when the Geneva Agreement was signed, dividing the country at the 17th parallel for the next 21 years, over a million Vietnamese uprooted and migrated for thousands of miles from the lands of their ancestors in the North to resettle in the South for the fear of the Communist party. Twenty-one years later, following the Fall of Saigon, millions more fled the country, either by boat across the South China Sea, or by foot across the land borders to Thailand.
Whilst living in Viet Nam I was lucky to live in three different versions of the country. I was in the spoiled ‘expat bubble’, accepted and welcomed by local Vietnamese people, (several of whom are still my friends today), and thirdly working for various community service projects, which were valuable and thought provoking experiences, providing a graphic illustration of the weakest and poorest communities.
Somewhere between all three probably lies the real Viet Nam, and understanding the discrepancies between the three crystallizes motivations for the Vietnamese to migrate and strive for better opportunities. Some Vietnamese are vulnerable and seek to improve their lives however they can. Others are well educated but when confronted with the discrepancy between their worth and that of their foreign counterparts, they also (understandably) seek improvements and equality.
Viet Nam has changed a lot, economically and politically – but not for everyone. The country has recovered after the war and sanctions by the US, but specifically for the some, like those 39 victims, life hasn’t changed so much since the unification of the country. Despite the development in Viet Nam, generally most growth is centered on the key urban and tourist areas. There is a huge income gap across the country as a whole – and also across the different ethnic groups.
Making a living is too difficult for many in Viet Nam.
People are not earning enough to even feed themselves, let alone their families. Central Viet Nam is very impoverished and opportunities are limited. This is an area that Naomi, a friend, and colleague of mine ran through, during a charity run from Ha Noi to Saigon. She commented;
“I was running through Nghe An Province towards Ha Tinh at the time of the discovery of the 39 bodies in the lorry in Essex. The poverty in the area was the worse I have seen in Viet Nam. There appeared to be no, or limited, industry in the coastal towns and I found it difficult to find food in some places, other than rice and watery soup. When reflecting on the young lorry victims I was aware of the lack of young people I was meeting in these communities.”
The 39 victims came from Nghe An Province and, like many others before them, and more in the future, willingly put a bet on their lives in order to reach Europe looking for prosperity – something they lack, or fail to obtain, in Viet Nam.
Many people migrate, even within Viet Nam, for better opportunities. For all, this involves hard work and compromise. For some, the journey pays off. For others, the journey proves to be built on empty promises. Undertaking these journeys may start with one intent, belief, or hope on the part of the travellers, but can turn into a trafficking situation.
The cost of travelling to Europe typically ranges between $10,000 and $40,000. The money is borrowed or raised against family property. Smugglers demand interest and so the debt quickly increases. If the debt is held against property back in Viet Nam, this can be used as a way to pressure and control the victim.
One lady I knew in Saigon had moved there from Central Viet Nam. She initially lived in very poor living and working conditions. Over time she taught herself English so improve her employment opportunities and consequently her living conditions. She continued to work hard, and save money. She put herself through catering college, and enrolled in a business course.
Her aim was to return to Central Viet Nam and open a local restaurant. She thought she’d be able to achieve this goal within another 2 years. She had worked extremely hard, maintained control over her expenses, and her life.
Charitable organisations step in
One of the organizations working hard to support the vulnerable is the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. They work to repatriate and rehabilitate victims of human trafficking. These rescues can be from within Viet Nam, or other countries.
I remember one appeal that went out for “workers” who were being rescued from a factory in Saigon. They needed money for food, winter clothing, and a bus ticket home. During the raid on the sweatshop, coordinated by Blue Dragon, Thu was rescued.
Blue Dragon reported her story. At just 15 years old, Thu had been exploited by lies of a promising future, a free vocational education and an opportunity to step out from the interminable cycle of her childhood poverty. Dreams destroyed, Thu would soon learn that the bright lights were in fact fluorescent factory neon strips; and the big city a squalid, 40-square meter sweatshop.
Here, alongside 12 other children, she would spend the following two years working 17-hour shifts, seven days a week. Beaten, refused daylight, sustained on a poor diet and forbidden to use the washroom for more than a total of eight minutes a day, Thu and the trafficked children are a sad part of the long list of Viet Nam’s vanished.
Blue Dragon also works to repatriate people from China. They told the story of Thao. The promise of a pair of shoes was all it took for traffickers to lure 7 year old ‘Thao’.
If you’re little, winter can be harsh when you have bare feet and no jacket to keep you warm. Up in remote, mountainous Viet Nam, children who live in poverty suffer wintertime the most. They live in bamboo shacks with walls that let in the cold, wind, and rain. So children like Thao shiver through these months.
Just last year, Thao was home alone. A neighbour came by and offered to buy her a pair of shoes so her feet could be warm. Thao did not think twice and followed him. However, the neighbour had other plans. Thao was kidnapped and smuggled across the border to China. She was to be sold as a domestic servant. Blue Dragon found and rescued Thao, and has supported her whole family since then.
Aside from slave labour many Vietnamese are trafficked for forced marriages and adoption, predominately to China, where the one-child policy and preference for sons has resulted in a scarcity of women. The ILO (International Labour Organization) reports that 40.3 million people are in modern slavery, including forced labour and forced marriage. 1 in 4 victims are children. Women and girls are disproportionately represented amongst those trafficked.
The “expat bubble”
I mentioned the “expat bubble” and this definitely exists. Indeed some of my Vietnamese friends would say there was a joke amongst them that when they died they wanted to come back as a foreigner living in Viet Nam. Whilst it was a joke, there was truth in the disparity. The contrast between the different experiences also acts as a catalyst to strive for more.
When I lived in Ha Noi it was a routine expectation to hire a maid, which certainly did inject money into the local economy. The standard monthly wage was $50 for a Vietnamese-speaking maid and $80 for an English-speaking maid. This gap in rates represented a significant difference in living conditions, and reinforced the message that familiarity with Western culture offers more prosperity.
Some colleagues of mine had an English-speaking maid who was so skilled she took on the role of a PA and house manager. They paid her $100 a month, because of her many skills. However, it transpired that she was a fully qualified lawyer.
At that time, she could earn more working as a maid to an expat family than she could earn working as a lawyer.
These are examples where hard working people were making choices to better themselves within their contexts. This illustrates both the disparity of opportunity, and the motivation for change. Some reasons that Vietnamese people may find themselves vulnerable when seeking to improve their opportunities are:
. the desire for an improved quality of life
. the desire for an increased income that can be sent back to the family
. the desire for a better social status associated with possessions and ‘material wealth’
. family pressure and expectation
. lack of education
. vulnerable children
. misinformation by deceitful labour brokers about opportunities abroad
But why choose Europe?
The simple answer is the comparative ease; and what is easier becomes more frequently used. North America and Oceania are less popular for illegal Vietnamese immigrants because of the natural barrier formed by the oceans. Travelling by ‘boat’ to these destinations is far more dangerous and less successful in contrast to overland journeys to Europe.
In most cases, they start by travelling from their home regions, mostly Northern and Central parts of Viet Nam, by bus and then by foot to China. From China, they will then board container trailers to Mongolia and then travel by foot across the deserts and forests into Russia. From Russia, they then board yet another container trailer to Eastern Europe states that border Western Europe. From there, they then travel by foot, again, to France, Belgium or the Netherlands where they board their last container trailer to cross the North Sea.
Once they arrive in the UK, or other European destinations, they become immigrant workers; introduced to nail salons or underground factories; or in some cases, sold into wedlock, and, or used as sex slaves.
I have spoken with my Vietnamese friends about this, and Ha told me:
“Despite the warnings and heartbreaking headlines like that of the 39 victims, stories of success and prosperity from working abroad have always overshadowed the risks and consequences that come in a package with illegal migration for poorer Vietnamese.”
Whilst working with a variety of community service agencies I saw first hand the dire situation that some families, especially children, face.
The 39 people in the lorry in Graves, Essex represent so much more than their own individual histories. They represent the history and aspirations of many Vietnamese. We should reflect on how similar their hopes and dreams are to our own. It also offers an opportunity to make the world a smaller place with increased empathy and understanding.
In the words of a Vietnamese child victim of trafficking in ECPAT UK’s youth group:
“I was a child who was taken across Europe by people I was scared of. In France, the police didn’t help me and my traffickers found me again. When in the UK, I was treated like a criminal. One thing I would say to the people in Europe is, if it happened to your children, you wouldn’t ignore it. One thing
I would say to the UK Government is, why are the victims the ones you treat like criminals?”
Whilst we are reading this many people who should be better educated about the issues will not find out more. Those must vulnerable still lack enough education to make different choices. The historical, social, economic, and environmental factors are all still at play.
Whilst we read this and hear of people rescued there are many more still trapped. And for those rescued, there is a journey of readjustment and healing still ahead.
– Andrea Dix, Nov 2019