Despite losing savings, woman happy her illegal immigration to China aborted

By Hoang Phuong   February 17, 2021 | 09:00 pm PT
Despite losing her entire savings on making a botched trip to China, Lan was relieved to be deported to Vietnam.

Dozens of men and women kept their heads down as they trod along a path to China at dusk, a flashlight being their only guide. Lan, who was seven months pregnant, was sweating buckets and panting with every step she took in the cold of a December night. No matter how hard she tried, she found herself lagging behind.

"I'm too tired, I can't walk any further; let me go home," she pleaded, but no one answered.

The 22-year-old later admitted she had preferred to be apprehended by border guards rather than suffer any further.

Lan was one of 20 people who failed to illegally enter China from the Ha Giang Province border last December, but was eventually caught by Chinese authorities and deported last month.

After returning she had to spend 14 days in quarantine as part of Covid-19 prevention protocol.

She is only one of many people whose lives were turned upside down by the pandemic, leaving them without jobs or livelihoods.

Lan, 22, cries as she recalls her arduous, illegal trip to cross into China back in December 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Lan, 22, cries as she recalls her arduous illegal trip to China in December 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Lan used to work for a shoe factory in the southern Binh Duong Province, but she was let go due to a lack of orders. She tried to find another job, but her pregnancy meant people were not too keen to hire her.

Her boyfriend, 28, messaged her at the end of 2020, "You can come here and live with me." He was in China.

He had gone to China in 2019 and was stuck there due to the coronavirus pandemic. He illegally works in a shoe factory, and has visited Vietnam once a year through border trails to evade authorities.

He and Lan met at the Binh Duong factory four years ago. While they have no plans for a wedding yet, they registered their marriage and were waiting for the birth of their first child.

And then the pandemic hit.

Lan could not find a job and her savings for her unborn child were running out, and so she was ready to go to China.

"There were advertisements on Zalo, saying the road to China was safe. There were even phone numbers provided."

Over VND28 million ($1,200) was the price the smugglers asked to take people into China, complete with guides on the way. All the transactions were done through the phone.

The chance of joining her boyfriend cemented her decision, and she squeezed out every last penny she had saved after years of working.

She packed clothes, two water bottles, biscuits, and some cash and took a coach from Binh Duong to the north. She had never been to the north before.

Waiting for her was a man who let her and others rest at a motel in Ha Giang's Dong Van Town for a night. The next morning they went toward the border on motorbikes.

"It was all mountains," Lan recalls. The group hid among trees and bushes while waiting for more illegal migrants to gather near the border.

At around twilight border guards change shifts, and the crossing began. They walked and walked until at around 2 a.m. they saw the lights of a Chinese neighborhood in the distance. But just a little while after they got into a truck they were caught by Chinese border guards.

A group of illegal Vietnamese migrants are deported by Chinese authorities in Ha Giang Province, January 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

A group of illegal Vietnamese migrants being deported by Chinese authorities to Ha Giang Province in January 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

In 2020 the Ha Giang border guards busted three cases of people smuggling, 13 people received prison sentences and 18 would-be illegal migrants were sent back home.

Dang Hai Nhu, deputy head of the Xin Cai border guard station, says smuggling rings are usually headed by kingpins living in China who have accomplices to bring people from Vietnam to China, mostly workers in the central and southern regions.

They communicate through social media platforms such as WeChat and Zalo.

There are recognizable patterns in such cases, Nhu says. Locals are often in charge of guiding people over the border, and get paid up to $154 for successfully smuggling a person.

Vu Mi Lu, 26, a young Mong man in Meo Vac District, is one such guide. In July last year Lu and four others, through social media, managed to find 14 people in central and southern Vietnam who wished to go to China illegally to work.

They hired a truck to take them to the border, but were caught by border guards. Lu was sentenced to five years in jail for his crime.

The participation of locals like Lu in people smuggling potentially makes border guards' jobs more difficult since they are familiar with the local terrain and able to keep track of border guard stations, Nhu explains.

The fact that, after the Lunar New Year, demand for workers in China is very high while many people in Vietnam are still unemployed, smuggling remains as rampant as ever.

The only option authorities have is to ramp up border surveillance.

Nhu adds: "While people illegally cross the border to seek livelihoods, it is still illegal. Illegal migrants without proper documents make it very difficult for citizen protection, not to mention several risks as China is tightening immigration."

As for Lan, despite losing all her savings in the unsuccessful attempt to get into China, she is relieved to be deported back to Vietnam since she no longer needs to hide.

When asked whether she plans to go to China again, she only shakes her head and cries.

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