On October 23rd 2019, the bodies of 39 migrants were discovered in a refrigerated lorry in Essex; the latest symbol of the human cost of modern-day people trafficking.
It wasn’t long before the news broke that not all of the 39 victims were Chinese nationals, as was initially believed, but some of them may have been Vietnamese migrants travelling under false passports. By now the face of 26-year old Pham Thi Tra My, believed by her family to be one of the people inside the lorry, has been sweeping social media and the heartbreaking final texts that she sent to her family struck a deep chord in me. As a second-generation British Vietnamese person, I’ve always seemed to feel some sort of kinship with my fellow Việt Kieu, or ‘Vietnamese sojourners’, and since the diaspora in Britain is tiny compared to those in North America, Australia or continental Europe, its not everyday that one of us appears on the news. I just wish it were under less tragic circumstances.
The lorry the victims were found in had made a long journey across Europe, from Ireland to Holyhead, to Zeebrugge in Belgium before arriving back in the UK, evading the heavily policed Calais-Dover crossing. The refrigerated container of the lorry is ordinarily used for transporting perishables; it can reach lows of -25 degrees Celsius and its airtight design would have created a suffocation risk for any trapped inside. Essex Police has said that of the deceased, 31 were men and 8 women. The driver, a 25-year old man from Armagh, has been arrested on suspicion of murder. A further 3 people have been arrested on human trafficking and manslaughter charges, as of the time of writing.
Miss Pham’s personal journey is a sad reflection of many Vietnamese people hoping to escape to the West. She hails from Ha Tinh Province, one of the poorest areas of an already impoverished nation, where her family still resides and who have been in contact with Essex Police via the Vietnamese Embassy in London. Pham is believed to have travelled from Hanoi to China, where she may have received a false passport, before moving on to Europe. Her family were first made aware of her plight when they received text messages from her, believed to have been typed as a kind of last will and testament as she suffocated in the complete darkness of the lorry container:
I’m so sorry Mum…My journey abroad has failed…I love you so much…I’m dying because I can’t breath…I’m from Can Loc, Ha Tinh, Vietnam…
Vietnamese people are one of the most prominent demographic groups to be the victims of human trafficking. Certainly, a romanticised view of the West is continually peddled by the media and the perceived success of Vietnamese people who have comfortably settled overseas drives numerous families to scrounge together the extortionate prices charged by human traffickers to send their children on a perilous journey, with the hope of a life free of poverty, oppression and (for many of Vietnam’s minority groups) discrimination. The harsh reality is that the people smugglers continue to capitalise on their desperate victims long after they have made the trip, as Steve Harvey, a former trafficking expert at Europol explains:
For many Vietnamese, the likely outcome in the UK is exploitation. Generally the Vietnamese organised criminality in the UK is linked to class-A drugs and marijuana farms. Most Vietnamese smuggled into the UK are exploited women forced into prostitution.
This tragedy also comes at an inconvenient time for China’s government and its image, who have been loudly espousing a new ‘Chinese Dream’. It is clear that many Chinese citizens are still unable to make ends meet at home and leave to seek better fortunes abroad. Patrick Poon, a China expert at Amnesty International said in a statement:
Many people think China is very wealthy – the world’s second-largest economy…But you still see the uneven dispersion of wealth, the income gap that make people risk their lives to travel all the way to Britain, to try to find a new life there.
Beijing is officially blaming Britain and the European Union for the tragedy, harking back to the Dover crisis in 2000, where 58 Chinese migrants were found dead in similar circumstances in a lorry that had come from Belgium. The Global Times, a state newspaper, wrote:
Such a serious humanitarian disaster occurred under the eyes of the British and Europeans. It is clear that Britain and the relevant European countries have not fulfilled their responsibility to protect these people from such a death.
In the last few days I’ve seen a tremendous outpouring of grief and anger targeted at the criminals who are complicit and are ultimately responsible for these sorts of disasters. But I’ve also seen a lot of what some might say is victim-blaming; that the migrants in the truck are criminals themselves for taking part in illegal immigration, and that paying £30,000 to get to Europe (somehow) means that these people are not truly desperate if they can afford that much, just opportunists.
To an extent I agree that these people are ultimately committing a criminal offence by illegally crossing the border. But I don’t think any of us, who by some miracle at conception were born into one of the most prosperous nations on Earth, can truly comprehend the sheer desperation for a better life that drives people to do this.
These people may be criminals under the eyes of the law, yes, but these are not people who have come to destroy our culture, or leech from our public services, as many claim. These are not people who will cause ‘riots in the streets‘ as Mrs Thatcher so eloquently described the ‘boat people’ fleeing from the tyranny of communism in the 1980’s. These are people who just wanted to find a quiet corner of the Western world and live, for both themselves and their families, in the hope they could find a better existence. Its these people who are the true victims of this tragedy.