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Vietnamese families say migrants were lured to Europe with promise of work — and found tragedy instead

Relatives of Bui Thi Nhung sit in front of an altar with Nhung’s portrait inside her home Oct. 26, 2019, in Nghe An province, Vietnam. (Linh Do/AP)

YEN THANH, Vietnam — They lived within a few miles of each other in this rural district of north-central Vietnam, a far cry from the rapidly developing commercial hubs of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Nguyen Dinh Tu, 26, Bui Thi Nhung, 19, and Le Van Ha, 30, hailed from Yen Thanh, in Nghe An province. Their families believe they are among the 39 people found dead in a shipping container last week in Essex, a county in southeastern England.

Tu, Nhung and Ha separately made their way to Europe in hopes of escaping poverty, their distraught relatives said Monday — placing the three among the thousands of Vietnamese migrant laborers who leave the country each year in search of work. According to the International Organization for Migration, many are from Nghe An, a poor region in a country that has touted its strong economic growth in recent years.

Vietnam’s largest province, Nghe An comprises tiny farming and fishing communities that have languished in poverty. Most houses here are squat, bare concrete structures with a few small rooms.

But there are exceptions: Gated villas with security cameras indicate the homes of families with relatives who made it to Europe, found work and sent money back. These structures, and the stories from successful migrant workers, lead others to attempt the perilous journey.

But the allure of financial stability can mask the risks involved.

British authorities launch investigation after 39 bodies are found inside truck

“I think there’s a myth created around going to Europe and the U.S. that may or may not reflect reality,” said Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, an expert on international migration at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Tu, a father of two young children, had taken out a $30,000 loan to build a house for his family in Yen Thanh, his aunt, Nguyen Thi Chin, said in an interview Monday. A friend already in Europe told him he should go there to work and pay off his debt, she added. He took out another $30,000 in debt, borrowing from banks and family members, to fund this effort, his aunt said, and he worked illegally in Romania and then Germany before attempting to enter Britain last week.

“His friend told him that he should go to England, where he could make $2,600 a month working in a nail salon,” Chin said, a massive sum for someone from this small community where there are few job opportunities.

Nhung’s brother, Bui Van Diep, said she enjoyed listening to music and chatting with friends on Facebook. He added that his sister had to drop out of high school because her family could not afford it after her father died of cancer in the past couple of years.

Ha, who also had two young children, made his way to Europe via air rather than land routes, said his father, Le Minh Tuan.

What we know about the tragic case of 39 people found dead in a truck in England

All three fell out of contact around the time of the gruesome discovery inside a refrigerated tractor-trailer in an industrial park about 25 miles east of central London.

More missing people have been reported in Ha Tinh province, which borders Nghe An to the south and is equally economically depressed. While families in Yen Thanh were open to sharing their stories, by Monday afternoon the police in Ha Tinh had told relatives to stop talking to reporters. Plainclothes police also prevented a reporter from speaking to a family believed to be missing one of a pair of twins near Vinh, Nghe An’s largest city.

Police in England have not confirmed the identities of any of the victims. Britain on Monday requested help from Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security in identifying four bodies, the Reuters news agency reported.

Since the truck was discovered, British police have detained four people in connection with the deaths, including the driver of the truck, who has been charged with 39 counts of manslaughter. Officials also are investigating whether organized-crime groups were involved.

McAuley reported from Paris.

‘I’m dying because I can’t breathe’: Vietnamese families fear relatives among 39 bodies in truck container in Essex, U.K.

U.K. police say 39 bodies found in truck container believed to be Chinese

Chinese migrants have a tragic history of deaths in Britain

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