The Vietnamese men and women feared by their families to be among 39 people found dead in the back of a refrigerated truck near London last week, and who left their historically impoverished homes to seek better lives abroad, are just the latest migration wave from the Southeast Asian nation, Vietnamese economic experts told RFA on Wednesday.
It is believed that the 39 were smuggled into the United Kingdom after leaving Vietnam to try to improve their families’ financial circumstances by finding illegal or legal work abroad.
Eighteen families in Nghe An province have reported losing contact with their relatives, while 10 families in Ha Tinh province have said they have been unable to reach loved ones since the discovery of the bodies on an industrial estate on Oct. 23.
Neighboring Quang Binh and Thua Thien-Hue provinces each have one family which has not heard from their relatives.
Though most of the bodies have yet to be identified, Vietnam believes that many of the dead were citizens of the Southeast Asian country and has been working with British authorities to verify their identities.
Many Vietnamese households send their children abroad to make a living, especially through illegal labor, Vietnamese analysts say, often amassing crushing debt to pay for air tickets and smugglers’ fees. Beyond poor job prospects, environmental disasters and government repression on Catholics drive immigration, they say.
Once one group succeeds abroad, another one will follow them, creating an “underground labor” movement, they say.
Many young Vietnamese choose this path, despite the harsh consequences they know they will face if authorities in other countries discover they are living and working illegally there, analysts say.
Pham Chi Lan, an independent economic researcher and former adviser to the Vietnamese Prime Minister's Office, cited the difficulty of finding jobs in the country's north-central provinces as the main reason for illegal immigration.
“The number of people from the central region going to other places to find jobs is very large compared to other places in the country,” she said.
“This is also a very clear fact that the central economy is still underdeveloped, jobs are still rare, and people’s lives are still too difficult, so they have to leave their homeland to go to work elsewhere,” she said.
The desire to improve one’s life is understandable, Pham added.
“Nobody wants to live in poverty and hardship, so changing their lives is a very legitimate aspiration of everyone,” she said.
Because the common mentality of the Vietnamese in general is to remain in their homeland, no one wants to leave voluntarily, Pham said.
“So for those who have to leave, the farther away they go, the harsher the situation there, and the more difficult the conditions are make them even more reluctant,” she said. “Finding a way to get better jobs to improve their lives is a difficult choice for many people.”
Pham Quynh Huong, a senior researcher at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Social Affairs, noted that some Vietnamese have developed a certain mindset about leaving the country, deciding to take a risk abroad after seeing others who have already left now living better lives there.
“With people in the previous migration wave — the boat people — it was their choice [to leave], though they knew they were sacrificing their own lives and sometimes those of their family,” she said. “But they still decided to depart.”
The boat people fled after the communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975 unified the country under harsh one-party rule.
“I find them to be very brave,” Pham said. “Perhaps that courage continues with the current wave of migration, passed on to the current generation in Vietnam. I think that psychological influence is still present in the people of Vietnam today.”
Many Vietnamese who relocate to Western countries transfer money to their families back home to build houses and buy furniture, and to give their children a better education, she said.
Villas and a church
A Reuters news agency report on Wednesday from Nghe An province described a Vietnamese "Billionaire Village" from which at least three of the 39 victims found in the back of the truck in London last set off for Europe.
A billion Vietnamese dong (U.S. $43,000), is enough in the farming village of Do Thanh, for example, to allow even farmers to live in huge mansions, paid for with money sent back by family members working abroad, the news agency reported.
The U.S. $16 billion in remittances sent back by migrants to Vietnam in 2018 was more than double the Southeast Asian country's trade surplus last year, Reuters cited World Bank figures as showing.
About 70 percent to 80 percent of the villas in Do Thanh have been built with remittances, Nguyen Van Ha, chairman of the rural, rice-farming commune in Nghe An province, told Reuters. Even Do Thanh’s massive renaissance-style church was built with remittance money donated by the Catholic community.
Reuters cited British government data as showing that 70 percent of Vietnamese trafficking cases in Britain between 2009 and 2016 involved labor exploitation, with migrants lured into jobs growing cannabis illegally and working in nail salons.
Researcher Pham Quynh Huong said those who leave Vietnam to find work abroad are “very basic people, very energetic.”
“Obviously, people know what is good for them, but they still strive to make their lives better, because they are not content with the present,” she said. “I see that is the right choice, and I respect them [and] appreciate their determination for overcoming difficulties and obstacles, but they are taking too many risks. They bet their lives, and that’s too risky.”
“There are many ways, such as labor exports, to go in a safer way,” she said, referring to formal programs under which Vietnam dispatches laborers to Europe and other regions.
Pham also said she also believes that Vietnam’s hybrid communist market economy may be causing people to feel insecure and to accept that they must leave in order to eke out a better living elsewhere.
“One aspect is that it's clear that people's lives today are better than they used to be, but people still want to leave because they want to be more better off,” she said.
Given the tragic deaths of the 39 people in what appears to be a human trafficking operation, Pham Chi Lan said that authorities in Vietnam must come up with economic solutions to the problem to avoid the further loss of lives.
“Definitely from the economic and employment perspective, [officials] must offer more balanced development among different groups of people in places and regions, and more equal opportunities for all people in society,’ she said. “This is what both policymakers as well as researchers in Vietnam will have to think a lot about to contribute to and to improve [the situation].”
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Channhu Hoang. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.