The 39 migrants found dead in a container in Essex, England, last month include some victims who relatives say hailed from this corner of Vietnam — where subsistence rice farmers live alongside the multistory houses of those whose families made it to the West.
On Friday, police in Vietnam arrested two suspects in connection with the Essex case, state-run VTV television reported. Col. Nguyen Tien Nam, deputy chief of Ha Tinh provincial police, was quoted as saying the suspects had alleged ties to smuggling networks but gave no further details.
The exodus from these provinces dates from the years after the Communists’ victory in the Vietnam War, when the economy languished under state-run farming collectives that pushed the newly unified nation close to famine.
Enter the Soviet Union, which accepted thousands of Vietnamese students and laborers. Some 7,000 Vietnamese arrived in the Soviet bloc in 1981, according to a Christian Science Monitor report the following year. Thousands more followed in subsequent years.
“Many people from these provinces stayed in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” said Dang Hoang Giang, a lecturer at Vietnam National University-Hanoi who is from Ha Tinh and studies migrant labor. “They had a strong tradition of supporting their community, so they helped their relatives to work in Europe, often illegally.”
This link strengthened through the 1990s, and as more people settled in Europe, especially Britain, they brought over more friends and family members, establishing a pipeline of young people leaving their hometowns for the lure of higher incomes.
Not all did so illegally. Almost 63,000 people from Nghe An migrated legally for contract labor abroad between 2012 and 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration, the highest among Vietnam’s provinces. Ha Tinh was in third place, accounting for about 34,000.
“Compared to provinces to the north and south, they lack favorable conditions to have a good life,” Giang said. “For example, they will face storms, drought and floods that often occur, and the natural resources are very poor.”
An uneven rise
Today, Vietnam boasts a flourishing economy and rapidly developing cities, led by Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Yet the contrast with rural areas is stark.
Monthly income in the two largest cities was about $170 per capita last year, compared with $51 for Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces, according to preliminary official data. The national average was $85.
Residents of Ha Tinh and Nghe An are raised to work overseas as many of their parents did, rather than head to Vietnam’s big urban areas, said Mimi Vu, an independent anti-trafficking expert based in Ho Chi Minh City.
“I was doing an outreach program in schools in Nghe An, and nearly every student out of 400 said they wanted to go abroad to work in the future. These were third- and fourth-graders, so it’s already in their head that they need to go abroad to work,” she said. “It is embedded into their culture.”
In the villages the Essex victims came from, it is impossible to miss the families with relatives working in Britain. Comfortable, sturdy homes with cars parked outside sit next to squat cinder-block houses, many without air conditioning.
Remittances from migrant laborers are key for both these provinces, with state media reporting that official inflows in Nghe An amounted to $255 million a year. Nationally, remittances are expected to reach almost $17 billion this year, up from $6 billion a decade ago, according to World Bank calculations. That amounts to more than 6 percent of gross domestic product.
The trafficking system
Those looking to work in Britain take on massive amounts of debt to get there. The journey can cost up to $50,000, and according to Vu, the traffickers run a sophisticated operation.
“This business is without regulation, so whatever fits, they’ll do it,” she said. “You can pay upfront, you can pay in stages, or they can guarantee the parents that their kid will get to the U.K. safely, and then they pay.”
The routes and transportation vary depending on how much a family pays, much like a travel business.
“If you pay less, it’s mostly by land, so into China where they get a fake passport and then Russia and into Latvia or Ukraine on foot,” Vu said. “Midrange is one flight to Europe and then land the rest of the way, and the most expensive is a flight to Spain and then a car to France.”
According to a March report compiled by anti-trafficking organizations, new trends are emerging on this route. The Netherlands is now a hub for Vietnamese illegally transiting to Britain, while Belgium has become a transit point, too.
Despite the Essex tragedy, experts said it wouldn’t deter others from attempting the journey.
“Many people think the victims are greedy, but the choice is not so simple,” Giang, the lecturer, said. “These immigrants know the difficulties waiting ahead, and leaving Vietnam is not just to earn money, but also to build a better future for them, their family in Vietnam, and their children.”