The Essex Tragedy and the Migrant Gamble

Nov 7, 2019 | 360, China, MariusC, News, Vietnam

British Police forensics officers work on a truck, found to be containing 39 dead bodies, in Grays, east of London, on October 23, 2019 ©AFP

Not even the risk of death could deter Asia’s migrants from seeking a better life abroad.

The British police continue to investigate the 39 deaths associated with the refrigerated truck tragedy that occurred in Grays, Essex, in southeast England. The UK as a whole is reeling from what has been called the ‘biggest murder investigation’ since 2005.

The driver of the refrigerated truck, 25 year old Maurice Robinson from Northern Ireland, has already been formally charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, and also money laundering, according to the Essex police. Three more people have also been taken into custody, including another Northern Irish man who was arrested in Dublin.

Initially, it was believed that the 31 men and eight women who froze to death in the back of a refrigerated truck in an industrial zone were all of Chinese origin. However, a number of individuals and families from Vietnam are coming forward to say that their loved ones have disappeared en route to the United Kingdom.

The victims, who are believed to have arrived via ferry in Zeebrugge, a Belgian port, now appear to be a mix of Chinese and Vietnamese nationals. British police are struggling to identify the victims, mainly because some of them were in bad physical shape when they discovered by emergency personnel.

Ferry Container Zeebrugge

Vietnam’s ambassador, Tran Ngoc An, had already visited Essex police and had phoned British Interior Minister Priti Patel about this possibility. Staff from the Chinese embassy have also headed to Essex in Britain to verify reports that a number of victims from the tragedy are Chinese nationals.

The truck in question was already moved to a more secure location at the Tillbury docks a day after the discovery of the bodies. It was also here that the bodies were removed.

The initial priority was to identify all 39 victims. The current tragedy echoes a similar even in 2000, when a staggering 58 Chinese immigrants were found dead at the back of a Dutch truck at Dover, an English port.

Hoang Thi Ai – Mother of Hoang Van Tiep one of the 39 Victims©AFP

“We’re In So Much Pain”

After hearing of the news of migrant deaths in Britain, Nguyen Van Tinh said that he was “devastated.” His brother, Nguyen Dinh Tu, had paid human smugglers $6,400 to go to Germany last year. Nguyen Dinh Tu’s goal however, was to reach Britain. His brother now fears that the migrant in their family may not have made it to Britain alive. “We’re devastated by this news. We’re in so much pain,” he said in an interview with AFP.

All Nguyen Dinh Tu’s family wants now is for the authorities to help them get his brother’s body back from the UK. Tu’s plan was to meet his father-in-law in Britain and was asked to prepare the fee for the smugglers. When Tu did not arrive as planned, his father-in-law phoned Tu’s family in Vietnam to tell them that he had likely died on his way to the country.

In another province, Ha Tinh, the family of Pham Thi Tra has been petrified with grief and worry since the news broke out of the tragedy. They believe that Pham Thi Tra had spent her final hours freezing to death at the back of the refrigerated truck. They had received a bone-chilling message prior to the news: “I’m sorry Mom. My path to abroad doesn’t succeed. Mom, I love you so much! I’m dying because I can’t breathe,” the 26 year old wrote in separate text messages.

The father of Le Van Ha, who is feared among the 39 people found dead in a truck in Britain, mourns for his son ©AFP

The Ultimate Gamble

The stories of Nguyen Dinh Tu and Pham Thi Tra are as old as the well-traversed human trafficking routes used by smugglers for decades. Driven by boredom and the tantalizing promise of a better life abroad, young Vietnamese, usually below the age 30, risk it all to reach Britain – the modern day El Dorado. China, which benefited from an economic boom decades ago, still suffers from the economic ills common in all nations. These two countries are the major origins of illegal crossings to Europe.

Tired of the lack of gainful employment at home, these would-be migrants are often convinced that Europe is the best place to be, thanks to images of abundance often found on the social media accounts of relatives who have been fortunate enough to have had a foothold abroad.

The smuggling networks that dot the European landscape use every means possible to transport migrants across borders. With literally no concern for the safety of the migrants, smugglers are often only concerned with the torturous fees that they levy on already poor families.

Bui Thi Nhung is among Victims ©AFP

Nguyen Van Hung paid smugglers $17,000 for a new passport and a flight to Russia before heading on to France and then Britain ©AFP

A single migrant can be charged up to $40,000 for a one way trip to Britain. Families who barely scrape by often resort to selling their house, taking out loans, or borrowing the money from relatives. Many families risk it all, even the food they are going to eat tomorrow, for a chance at earning £3,800 or more when they reach Britain. This is a figure that is used constantly by human smugglers to excite and then abuse the families of migrants so they would cough up the ticket fees.

Often having zero knowledge of migration and the risks of human smuggling, migrants automatically become vulnerable individuals that can easily be abused or exploited en route to their final destinations.

Those who do reach Britain and other European countries end up taking dead end jobs that barely pays the rent, like salon manicurists and cannabis farmers. Some migrants even end up in illegal brothels, where they are abused by pimps and brothel owners so they would service customers continually. The dangers of illegal migration are real, and the dangers begin at the first step of the treacherous, illegal crossing to Europe.

Many Vietnamese migrants begin their journey in Russia. Fake passports are often easy to come by, and they can easily cross over to Russia, where a large number of smuggling networks operate. Migrants are often asked for additional fees along the way. Those who don’t have money to cough up will obviously be stranded in the country.

Eastern Europe has many Vietnamese communities, many having moved there as war refugees. The migrants then take a westward route to France, where many stay in makeshift camps awaiting trucks that would take them across the border to Britain. These makeshift camps are actually terminals for what is called the “VIP transfer” to Britain.

What it really means is that migrants have to pay thousands more in dollars so they can be stowed away in large trucks (like the one found in Essex) and risk capture along the way. Border police dot the highways between countries in the EU, and there is no point in time that the migrants are ‘safe’ as the smugglers would promise them.

Despite all the risks and concrete dangers of illegal migration, people continue to risk it all, so as to claim that one shot at having a better life. The difficulty in identifying when the smugglers strike and how they smuggle people is reflected in last year’s World Migration Report, which stated that “trafficking in persons often involves movements within countries or across international borders. In different contexts, migrants (including workers, refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs) can become victims of human trafficking,”

“Due to the clandestine and underreported nature of this activity, however, systematic data collection is problematic and global estimates of human trafficking are limited,”

“Global level data on migrant smuggling on routes traversing land, air and sea are unavailable. Tragedies involving smuggled migrants are often a key glimpse into the potential scale and vulnerabilities associated with such movements,” the report stated.

Nov 7-8, 2019 – Update

British police on Friday confirmed the names of the 39 victims, who are all Vietnamese nationals, found dead in a refrigerated truck in southeast England last month. 

Profiles of some of the victims:

Hoang Van Tiep, 18

From Dien Chau district, Nghe An province. After Tiep dropped out of high school, he told his family he wanted to work overseas instead of becoming a fisherman in his coastal home province. He left with his cousin Nguyen Van Hung — who also died — a year ago for France where he worked as a dishwasher. On October 21, two days before the truck was found, he wrote to his family asking them to get $13,000 to pay to smugglers for his trip to the UK, the last they heard from him. He carried nothing but 500 euros ($550) in his wallet and the clothes on his back. Hoang Van Tiep wanted to work overseas instead of becoming a fisherman. Nguyen Van Hung got a falsified passport in 2018 and took off without telling his parents.

Nguyen Tho Tuan, 26

From Yen Thanh district, Nghe An province. Tuan’s last message to his pregnant wife came two days before the truck was found, asking for $16,000 to make the journey from France to the UK, according to state media. He had left his family in early October for Europe. “It’s so sad that his child, when born, will not be able to see his dad,” Tuan’s cousin Tran Thi Lien told VNExpress.

Nguyen Van Hung, 33

From Dien Chau district, Nghe An province. With his sights set on the UK, Hung got a falsified passport last year and took off without telling his parents. Travelling via Russia, he snaked his way westwards to France. He called his parents on October 21 asking them to get money together for his crossing into the UK, telling them he didn’t have any luggage — just the clothes he was wearing.

Pham Thi Tra My, 26

From Can Loc district, Ha Tinh province. In her final chilling message to her mother My said: “I’m sorry Mom. My path to abroad doesn’t succeed. Mom and dad I love you so much! I’m dying because I can’t breathe.” The note was sent just hours before the bodies were discovered in the refrigerated trailer. My left home on October 3, apparently going into debt to fund her trip abroad. “Please try to work hard to pay the debt for mummy, my dear,” she wrote to her brother Pham Manh Cuong.

Vo Van Linh, 25

From Can Loc district, Ha Tinh province. Linh had entered Russia in 2016 as a tourist and stayed there for six months before moving on to Germany, with the family fronting more than $14,000 for the journey. “He last contacted us on October 19,” Vo Van Binh.

Le Van Ha, 30

From Yen Thanh district, Nghe An province. Ha left behind his wife and two children for Europe en route to Britain where he hoped to earn enough money to support his young family. His youngest son was born just three months ago, after he left home. Ha flunked out of police school, then tried rice farming and interior design before deciding to set off. Le Van Ha left behind his wife and two children for Europe en route to the UK The family last heard from him on October 21. “I’m about to board a car to Britain. I’ll contact the family when I arrive in England, Dad,” he wrote to his father.

Cao Tien Dung, 37

From Dien Chau district, Nghe An province. The father-of-two and former barber left Vietnam in June 2008 for Europe, settling in Germany where he worked as a delivery man. “He worked very hard but could not earn much money,” his sister Cao Thi Hao said. He went to France on October 20, and last messaged home two days later to say he was going to Britain.

Cao Huy Thanh, 37

From Dien Chau district, Nghe An province. Thanh worked in a chicken processing plant in Romania where he moved in March 2019, leaving his four children behind. He went to Germany then the UK on October 22 with his friend Cao Tien Dung, who also died, writing home for a final time. “He told us to burn incense for our ancestors and pray for his good luck,” his wife Thai Thi Giang said.

Bui Thi Nhung, 19

From Yen Thanh district, Nghe An province. An avid Facebooker, Nhung left home two months before she went missing, with her sights set on Britain. Bui Thi Nhung’s Facebook feed was full of selfies and snaps of bubble tea and noodle soup as she traveled across Europe. Nguyen Dinh Luong had been living in France since 2018 where he worked as a waiter. Her feed was full of selfies and snaps of bubble tea and noodle soup as she traveled across Europe, until her page went silent two days before the doomed truck was found.

Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20

From Can Loc district, Ha Tinh province. One of eight kids, Luong had been living in France since 2018 where he worked as a waiter. A few weeks before he died he called home to say he was heading to the UK to work. A relative posted a desperate plea on Facebook after he went missing: “His characteristics: 1.62 metres, weight about 58 kg. He has a tattoo on his left bicep.”

Bui Phan Thang, 37

From Hong Linh district, Ha Tinh province. This was Thang’s second trip overseas for work, after a stint in Taiwan as a labourer a few years ago. The father of three last called home on October 21, telling his family he was stepping out to buy groceries. Bui Phan Thang was a father of three AF P Families of suspected Vietnamese victims recall how they had to pay “My husband is a very nice man. He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink. He has always taken good care of us,” said his wife Nguyen Anh Hong.

Nguyen Huy Hung, 15

From Nghi Xuan district, Ha Tinh province. One of the youngest victims, Hung left his rural village for the UK where his parents both live. His sister, who lives in South Korea, posted on Facebook that her younger brother was missing and believed to be in the truck.

Nguyen Ngoc Ha, 32

From Bo Trach district, Quang Binh province. The fisherman told his family he wanted to earn more money to raise his two kids when he left two months ago, according to state media, and his father had no idea his son was headed to the UK.

Nguyen Dinh Tu, 27

From Yen Thanh district, Nghe An province. A former army recruit, Tu is believed to have travelled from Germany to Britain where he planned to meet his father-in-law who helped to arrange his trip. Tu’s Facebook page says he lives in Berlin and features a profile picture of a clean-cut man in a black turtleneck.

Vo Ngoc Nam, 28

From Yen Thanh district, Nghe An province. Nam worked in Romania for a few months before heading to the UK. His family lost touch with him a few days before the truck was found.

Nguyen Van Nhan, 33

From Can Loc district, Ha Tinh province The day before the truck was discovered, Nhan informed his family that he was about to cross from Germany to the UK in search of better prospects, according to state media. He was married with two kids, and his wife had travelled to Japan a month ago for work.