Why do so many Vietnamese migrants risk their lives to come to the UK?
Written by on 22 December 2020
Driven by poverty in their own country, an estimated 18,000 Vietnamese migrants risk their lives each year being smuggled illegally into the UK.
They are lured to Britain by the promise of jobs involving long hours, poor conditions and meagre wages.
But all that is a vast improvement on their lives in the poor, rural north of Vietnam.
Essex lorry deaths: What happened?
And it provides a chance to save money and send it home to their families, most of whom have borrowed to pay the smugglers.
The risks involved in the often perilous journey were illustrated by the deaths of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children who suffocated in an airless, sealed lorry trailer before it arrived by ferry in Essex last year.
One young Vietnamese man who survived a similar trip – and too scared of his smugglers to reveal his name – said: “When I left Vietnam I didn’t care about dying. I was going to die anyway, so if I died on the way to the UK I didn’t care. I was desperate to leave Vietnam and get to the UK for work.”
Investigators believe the Essex deaths have done little to deter the traffic.
If there is a fall in numbers of illegal immigrants it’s probably more to do with coronavirus.
Most find jobs in traditional Vietnamese-run, unregulated businesses such as nail bars and and car washes.
Some will end up working in illegal cannabis factories where there is often a fine line between employment and modern slavery.
Dr Tamsin Barber, a lecturer in political sociology at Oxford-Brookes University, said: “They’re coming to work hard. They don’t see themselves as being exploited. They can’t earn a high hourly rate because they’re not documented migrants.”
Dr Barber believes the UK government should help the economic migration from Vietnam.
She said: “I think the smugglers are offering these people a service, they are offering a chance to improve the lives of their families and who else is offering those opportunities?
“We need to be very cautious about focusing on smuggling rings and the criminal networks. We need to think about global wealth disparities and the lack of open borders and possibility for economic mobility around the world which is what is needed when you have countries like Vietnam who are developing nations.
“There is a real need for economic migration and we are depriving them those rights and especially when we think there is a labour demand here in the UK for those migrants, they wouldn’t be coming here otherwise.”
Instead of that, the British government has launched a campaign in Vietnam to dissuade illegal migrants.
The British Ambassador to Hanoi, Gareth Ward, appears in a short video message with Miss Universe Vietnam 2017, warning: “Everybody has a dream to better themselves, but I urge you to listen and remember.
“Don’t listen to those who want to smuggle you to a new job overseas. Traffickers always promise the Earth, but leave you vulnerable, alone and hungry.”
Kevin Hyland, former UK anti-slavery commissioner, said investigators were too keen to treat human trafficking as a social issue rather than a serious crime and too little was done to explore intelligence gathered from thousands of detected illegal immigrants.
He said: “We have got techniques that we can use, covert techniques, ways of infiltration and they need to be used just like those techniques would be used on drugs crime or gun crime, on terrorism.
“If you’re a criminal committing these crimes, there is nothing stopping you, nothing pushing you back because globally you’re making 150 billion dollars a year estimate, a lot of that comes from the UK, why would you not do this crime?”
The National Crime Agency (NCA), which leads the fight against human trafficking, denied it wasn’t doing enough.
Matthew Long, the NCA’s Deputy Director, said: “Look, for all crime there’s more we can do. However, what we’ve got at the moment is an absolute top priority full attack on organised immigration crime.”
He said the NCA had 50 current investigations into human trafficking gangs.