Harrowing tales of horror: Migrant workers tell their stories

By Duc Hung, Van Hai, Phan Anh   November 3, 2019 | 05:00 am PT
Suffocation. Whipped like slaves. The fear of dying as a gun is pointed to the head.

These are not experiences associated with a better life, but this is what Luc remembers most. These were real, direct experiences, not happening in a book or in a movie.

He remembers how suffocating a warehouse in Russia could be after he and 80 others were stuffed inside one for a month. He remembers how people were whipped for walking too slowly across the woods of Ukraine and Poland in the middle of the night. He remembers how it feels to be begging for dear life as a gun was pressed against his head in a concentration camp for migrants in France.

The one thing he does not have a memory of is what he was promised at the end of all the travails - a happy life if he were to leave his country and work in another.

That promise has never been fulfilled.

Luc, now 46, was one of many native from the central province of Ha Tinh who embarked on a journey to Germany in 2003 in hopes for a better life. He had no idea that a nightmare was beginning, one in which he was violently beaten, robbed of his belongings and even imprisoned.

"It was a horrific journey that lasted for a year. It almost cost me my life," said Luc.

Luc, 46, recalls his experience travelling to Germany for work. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Hung.

Luc, 46, still remembers the horrors he experienced while trying to get to Germany for work. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Hung.

Luc was 30 then, with a wife and a small child. Seeing how some families in the neighborhood became much better off after some of their members left the village to work abroad, he thought he could make it as well.

So he borrowed $5,000 and gave it to a local middleman for a passport to Russia for three months as a tourist before traveling to Germany.

The day he landed in Russia, he was taken by another Vietnamese to a warehouse, along with 80 others of different nationalities, all intent on going to Germany. Their passports and personal documents were destroyed, and they were confined inside the warehouse for several days with no communication with the outside world. They were fed every day, though.

After a month, the head of the trafficking ring informed the migrants that their journey from Russia to Germany has officially begun. The migrants were split into multiple groups of five to seven people each. It was decided that they would cross the woods at night, with a trafficker on a horse leading them. They would have to pass through Ukraine and Poland in the process.

"Whoever lagged behind would be whipped by the ones on the horse. As dawn approached, we would once again be locked inside a warehouse in the middle of the woods," Luc said.

"There were times when we had to lay low in the woods for a month before we could continue our journey."

In order to cross to Poland from Ukraine, the migrants had to pass through their border: a 60 m-wide, 15 m-deep river. There were police forces and guard dogs standing by in the area, so using boats was not an option. So the traffickers put migrants in giant plastic bags and hired divers to carry the bags to the other side of the river.

"I was so worried I couldn’t sleep; even though I knew how to swim. I hid two knives with me, just in case something went wrong, so I could tear through the bags and escape," Luc said.

"As the night fell, two divers put me in a plastic bag and I coiled myself inside. One would pull the bag from underwater, while the other made sure the bag stayed at the bottom of the river. But as we approached the other side, the cops were already waiting."

The plan had failed. Luc was forced to return to Ukraine, where he was sentenced to three and a half months in jail for illegally crossing the border.

Luc's time in prison was hardly a happy one. He was frequently beaten and tortured by his cell mates. By the time he got out, his body was covered with wounds and scars. Still, he decided to take another shot and contacted the traffickers to continue his journey to Germany.

This time, he and 12 other migrants were stuffed inside a five-seat car going to the border of the Czech Republic, each person having to lie on top of another, he recalled.

"Everyone had to stay perfectly still. Doesn’t matter if you felt itchy or cramped, you cannot scratch, you cannot whine. Some even had to urinate right in the car. Others were too fearful of the experience, they had to give up on the journey."

It took the group a month to reach the Czech border. The traffickers dropped them off about two kilometers away from the nearest border gate, leaving them to fend for themselves. Luc had to navigate an entire section of the woods on his own to get to Germany.

This time, however, he succeeded. In September 2004, he met up with another group of Vietnamese, who lived in Germany and worked with the traffickers. They were waiting for him at the edge of a forest. They whisked him away in a car. Luc had to pay them another $1,000 to get inside Germany though.

Luc joined a migrant camp and lived off welfare, about €200 ($223) a month, upon entering Germany. After getting used to his new life, he often got out to smuggle cigarettes for some extra cash.

"If everything goes well, I can make from €1,000 to €5,000 a month. Life has started to get better. I have paid off my debts and started to send money back to my family," he said.

U.K. dream

Four years after he first came to Germany, Luc was told by his friends in the U.K. that the pay was much better over there. So once again, in 2008, he contacted a group of traffickers and made it to the Calais port in France with another Vietnamese to find a way to get to the U.K.

Inside a forest near Calais, thousands of migrants from all around the world erected hundreds of tents and lived there for years, waiting for a chance to cross into the U.K. Things weren't always so peaceful in the community however.

Violent confrontations, robbery and murder were commonplace among the migrants. Luc and his companions once hired two locals as guides, but it turned out they were robbers. Upon being discovered, they threatened him by pointing a gun at his head.

"I knelt down and begged [for my life], giving them some money. They hit me with their guns, we pretended to faint and they eventually left. We then ran for dear life," Luc recalled.

But it wasn't over yet. He and his companion still had to cross a ferry to get to the U.K.

There were two ways to get from Calais to the U.K. on ferries. One could pay €2,000 for traffickers to compromise truck cargoes, and migrants could hop onto those trucks on their own. Or, with the "VIP package" costing €10,000, traffickers would help migrants hide themselves inside containers. Luc and his companion decided to pay up €10,000.

Inside the container, which stores electronic devices, Luc and other migrants had to cover their heads with plastic bags so that security systems would not detect their breathing, Luc said.

"I had to constantly hold my breath. The truck was so cold, I was shivering the whole time," he recalled.

Luc did get out of Calais successfully. But upon entry into London, his group was discovered by the police. He was later deported back to Germany, and eventually, to Vietnam.

Now, Luc and his wife run a coffee shop in their hometown. But the memories of his journey to Europe 16 years ago have never faded. He has no desire to live through that again.

"That was enough. I was lucky to keep my life."

Cannabis cultivator

Thai, also of Ha Tinh, had a stable job at home, but decided to leave for the Czech Republic to try his luck.

Flash forward to 2010. Thai, then 26, decided to leave the Czech Republic for a chance to get to the U.K., and with it, perhaps even more money and stability. He landed a job in a nail salon for three months, before switching to a more unconventional venture: cannabis cultivator.

The job brings Thai an income three times higher than his last. He knew it was illegal and that he could be jailed for up to a year, but he didn’t care.

The "farm" he worked in was a small three-story house, with three rooms, each having about two dozen light bulbs in it. To keep the work a secret, fans, filters and vent systems were employed to air out the rooms and eliminate the plants’ signature smell. Windows were covered with thick drapes to prevent light from getting out. If all the light bulbs were on and no fan was running, temperatures inside a room could reach 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), said Thai.

Thai was in charge of taking care of about 300 plants in three rooms. As the plants grew, light bulbs had to be turned on all day and night. They were harvested once every four weeks, before being shipped out to the black market.

The work day lasted for about six hours. The rest of the day, Thai just lay around the house to kill time; he only got to get out of the house sometimes at the end of a harvest. Food was brought to a refrigerator in the house once a week, and Thai had to cook for himself.

That typically earns about £7,500 ($9,700) per 10 kilograms of cannabis buds sold. 70 percent of the profits from selling cannabis go to the boss, while workers get the remaining 30 percent. And as he’s an illegal worker, Thai has to ask the boss to send his money back home for £60 per £1,000.

"I was scared to be alone. I was most afraid of cops raiding the house or robbers stealing my stuff. Even then, if I was robbed, the worst that could happen is that my boss would lose money and I would get a pay cut for the next harvest. But if a cop arrested me, my dream to get rich would end," he said.

Thai also mentioned how British police often patrolled the area with helicopters and heat sensors. The boss would then ask him to switch off all the lights and go hide himself.

"There were nights when I heard noises coming from the neighbor’s house, and that was enough to make my heart pound, fearing someone might have entered the house. While I slept, I always wore all my clothes and shoes, just in case something wrong happened and I could escape in time," he said.

Thai was eventually arrested by the police in 2013 and got jailed for six months for illegally growing cannabis. He was moved to a migrant camp afterwards for three months, and then decided he'd had enough and was permitted to return in Vietnam in 2014.

"Sometimes when I look back at my time in the U.K., I still shudder."

Remittance lifeline

Thousands of people from Ha Tinh’s Nghi Xuan District have become illegal workers in European countries. One local official said that the fact there were so many people who work abroad has brought welcome remittances back to the district.

There's been a same wave of migrant workers from its neighbor Nghe An Province.

"Almost everyone around here has a relative overseas," said Bui Thac from Nghe An whose nephew is feared to be among the 39 people who died in the container truck tragedy in the U.K. last month.

"Almost all households has someone going abroad. Old people stay but young people must find ways to work abroad because it’s difficult to work at home."

"Labor exports are one solution to unemployment," Nguyen Quang Phu, deputy chairman of Thanh Loc Commune of Nghe An, told Reuters. "Remittances have helped to improve the lives of the people here."

But these so-called "remittances" were transferred not through international transactions, but either directly in person or through domestic "ghost" accounts.

"People like me are just a cogwheel in a transnational chain of labor trafficking and money laundering," said Bao, who also came to the U.K. in 2013 to work illegally as a cannabis cultivator. He could not explain how the English pound he made could be converted into Vietnamese dong.

On several Ha Tinh streets, signs and fliers advertising services to help people work abroad can be seen all over. If one shows the slightest interest, it will not be difficult to find several phone numbers of people who can "help."

An advertising billboard for a labor export company in Ha Tinh Province, October 28, 2019. Photo by Reuters/Kham.

An advertising billboard for a labor export company in Ha Tinh Province, October 28, 2019. Photo by Reuters/Kham.

Cracking down on labor trafficking is difficult because families fear that their relatives abroad could be deported if trafficking lines were exposed, a source in the public security sector said.

Traffickers also continually approach their clients’ families, threatening to not compensate them in case members are injured or killed abroad, if they inform authorities. And the fact that transactions are only done directly in person makes such crackdowns that much harder.

*Names of the migrant workers have been changed.

go to top