Illegal migration a chronic issue, despite the deadly journeys

April 24, 2024 | 04:46 pm PT
Vo Nhat Vinh Researcher
Thanh, a 30-year-old laborer, reached out to me for advice on how or if she should go to France to work.

I refused, saying that work consultation was not my forte. I only support and guide students who go abroad to European countries to study. But Thanh insisted that I listened to her story.

Thanh came from a town where young people could borrow more than $10,000 to travel to England via Europe to work illegally, where they dream of making a few thousand pounds each month. One of the people from her town was among the 39 Vietnamese illegal migrants who were found dead in the infamous Essex truck trailer incident of 2019.

In September 2023, one of Thanh's cousins almost faced the same destiny: she was found before she ran out of air inside a similar truck trailer in France. She had paid dearly – in more ways than one – to end up that way, spending all her savings, and probably borrowing, on this "investment."

Thanh wanted me to help her find a less risky way to work abroad.

On March 25, the U.K.'s Home Department, which oversees immigration law and security matters, posted a video in Vietnamese on all its social media platforms. This message, which is still posted today, specifically targets all the Vietnamese who intend to cross the English Channel by small boats via France's Manche region.

This channel is part of the Atlantic Ocean, with the closest distance between France and the U.K. being only 34 kilometers. This relatively short distance, unfortunately, typically has strong currents and storms. It is extremely unfit for small boats that illegal migrants typically use.

The message of the Home Department video is short and concise: whoever attempts to cross this way will not survive the ocean. The message notes other high risks of such illegal immigration as well.

Statistics show that the number of illegal Vietnamese immigrants in the U.K. has increased by 17% year-on-year. These migrants have no legal rights in the U.K., with no access to public services or government support. These are completely different from the dream prospects advertised to prospective migrants in Vietnam.

The U.K. is a global hotspot for illegal migrants for various reasons, including a robust underground economy of undocumented migrants that is estimated to be contributing up to 10% of the U.K.’s national GDP.

Three other main points include, firstly, that the U.K. has one of the world’s most developed economies, lowest unemployment rates, and most flexible immigration policies.

Second, with English being taught globally, migrants typically feel a bit more confident about their survival prospects in an English-speaking country like the U.K.

Third, after many waves of successful illegal migrants, such communities have established bases in the U.K., which allow subsequent illegal migrants to acclimate easier.

Thanh had not yet been disillusioned by the prospects of such life in the U.K. She could not fathom life as a factory worker in southern Vietnam’s industrial zones, making barely VND10 million ($395) a month.

She and many others thus wish to find a chance to change their lives for the better. The death of 39 people in the Essex truck was not enough of a wake-up call.

International labor mobility is a real need, not just in Vietnam, but also in developed countries. It’s only become an "issue" because it’s conducted illegally. Individuals subjecting themselves to such schemes are exposed to human trafficking organizations, most of which are closely linked with prostitution, larceny, and drugs. These individuals are put on dangerous vehicles, such as enclosed truck trailers, or small boats against the large Atlantic waves, which exposed them to lethal risks.

Despite those risks, the prospect of earning a few thousand pounds a month sounds too good to say no to for such laborers. Compared to their meager salary at home, these individuals can recoup their initial payments after less than two years of working in the U.K. Then they can start making profits subsequently.

But many of these would-be individuals only see the tip of the iceberg – they only see all the financial glory that they could possibly maybe have. They see a few individuals returning with significant money, who build a new house and buy a new car. No one told these laborers that this money only comes after surviving a potentially deadly journey. No one told them that life and work in a foreign land without legal rights is also filled with blood and tears.

The only sustainable way forward is to develop the local economy and eliminate the risks for local laborers – and thus resolve the motive for illegal migration abroad. But when can Vietnam achieve this goal? This could take a few decades, while every year hundreds of Vietnamese are still risking their life in far-away lands.

Local governments need to take active measures to raise awareness in local communities of the risks of such journeys. We cannot rely solely on the U.K. government to protect the lives of Vietnamese.

Wasting lives in a far-away land with a heavy debts can cause families to lose everything, leaving behind only permanent emotional scars.

*Vo Nhat Vinh is an R&D expert based in France.

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