Human smuggling thrives in Vietnam because we are all complicit

By Duc Hoang   November 4, 2019 | 11:11 pm PT
Impoverished people will surely seek a better life elsewhere or die trying, but it is society’s fault for normalizing people smuggling.
Duc Hoang

Duc Hoang

"It doesn't always go well in business," he said. "Sometimes people die and we have to compensate their families for that."

The man was a human smuggler.

I met him a few years ago in a country known for its many Vietnamese migrant workers. He knew I was from Vietnam and brimmed with joy, and was unpretentious, down-to-earth the way someone from the countryside welcomes guests from a faraway land.

He even invited me home for dinner.

He told me he was keeping someone in his basement since the man's family had not paid the fee. He was not going to let the person out until his family paid the money even if it took a year.

I looked at the 'prisoner'. He seemed around 40 and had a somewhat guarded, timid look on his face. I wondered how he could possibly survive out there by himself, not to mention find a job.

I did not have to ask my smuggler buddy much about his work; he told me almost everything himself. But there was one particular conversation that stood out.

"Is it risky?" I asked.

"People do die sometimes."

It was as if he was a merchant who accidently loses a few goods here and there along the way. He spoke of migrant workers dying like he spoke of any business risk.

This was the same man who argued with me about how I should have named my child over glasses of beer, like old friends bickering with each other about inane stuff.

While I admit I never judged him for what he did for a living, I did realize he lived in a different world from mine. In his world, whether you live or die simply comes down to luck, and if you do lose your life, tough luck. It was simply an occupational hazard.

To consider fellow human beings as no more than goods that could break on the way to their destination is something that has always frightened me.

Yet I accepted what he did was a job like any other out there. No more, no less.

People have grown so accustomed to the wrongs going on around them that somehow these have become social norms. Whether it is a favor like using personal connections to ask for a job one is not qualified for or outright criminal acts like corruption... these are misdeeds we see almost every day on the news, yet do not abhor them as we should.

Instead, eventually they became part of our reality since they are ubiquitous in our daily lives. They are the new normal.

If we can accept criminal acts as social norms, certainly "sending people abroad for work" or human smuggling does not sound all that bad.

If you met someone from Nghe An Province, sat down for a few beers and talked about sending someone to Europe illegally for work, the conversation would almost be humdrum. I am from Hai Phong, and everyone around me was willing to cross the border for illegal work, no matter the legal repercussions. It was very commonplace.

Yet, we know this cannot go on forever.

When I heard about how 39 people died in a truck in the U.K. last month the first thing that came to me was the image of the human smuggler I met years ago. I have retained memories of him without making a judgment whatsoever. But now I have to take a side.

Catholics attend a mass prayer for 39 people found dead in the back of a truck near London, in Nghe An Province, Vietnam. Photo by Reuters.

Catholics attend a mass prayer for 39 people found dead in the back of a truck near London, in Nghe An Province, Vietnam. Photo by Reuters.

I have seen many stories from collaborators trying to make sense of how and why so many people from the central Vietnam countryside want to cross the border. Some look for an economic angle, others dissected the social and cultural background that could incentivize people to do so.

Many have asked me to write stories based on those perspectives since I have spent many years writing about migrants and communities of illegal Vietnamese workers around the world.

But I refuse. Why? Because, if I write stories that explore the mental, social and cultural aspects of people who do not mind crossing borders illegally for work, wouldn't that invest these behaviors with the status of social norm too?

On the other hand, if we should not generalize their actions as driven by greed, ignorant or they "knew what they were doing and must pay."

We never ask why drug addicts fall prey to their addictions, whether they were spoiled by their parents or lacked willpower and discipline, or say they "knew what they were doing and deserve what's coming to them."

Why should it be any different for people who try to leave their homes in search of a better life?

If any of those killed on that truck was your parent, spouse or child, their last moments spent banging on doors, gasping for breath and texting their final messages to their loved ones, you would certainly see things from a different perspective.

You would see that human smuggling is a cruel and inhuman crime, and that those who commit or are complicit in it deserve the severest punishment prescribed by the law.

As Vietnamese start to accept that working illegally abroad is a social norm, middlemen and smuggling gangs have started to make less effort at concealment.

Officials now openly approve of the remittances flowing back to their communities. If we take a clear stance on the issue and see people smuggling as an obviously criminal act, I do not think it would be difficult to track down transactions worth tens of thousands of dollars flowing in and out of Vietnam in broad daylight.

It is vital that we educate people about the importance of such a stance. If we no longer accept working illegally abroad as a social norm and treat it as a crime, it would be much easier to stop it.

If you want to lend a helping hand, you can start by not commenting on the people who try to go abroad illegally to work. Like I said, we cannot put the blame on them, much like how we do not question drug addicts’ responsibility for doing what they do. Because that would make us complicit with whoever is pulling the strings from behind the scene.

As for my smuggler friend, I have not been in touch with him for many years now. But I do dream of a day when I could return to his city, find that same alley and knock on his door, though it seems like I can no longer do that.

Maybe he might hate me for telling this story. But it's a story that needs to be told.

*Duc Hoang is a journalist at VnExpress. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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