Remembering a tragedy

By Gareth Ward   October 22, 2020 | 08:01 pm PT
One year ago today, 39 bodies were discovered in the container of a truck at Grays, Essex, not far from London.
Gareth Ward

British Ambassador Gareth Ward

I remember clearly reading this terrible news as I came to the embassy the following day. I discussed the situation with my colleague Ha, and she translated from Vietnamese the final phone message of one of the young female victims to her parents in Ha Tinh Province. We began to realize the horror of what had happened, and were both shocked. We prepared ourselves for the worst, fearing all 39 victims could be Vietnamese.

One year on, and that container truck remains a haunting image. Today, as we remember the victims, it must be a very difficult day for their families. This sad moment also reminds us of the important question, how can we stop this tragedy from being repeated?

I have thought a lot about the motivation of those Vietnamese who seek to go to the U.K. illegally. My colleagues and I have contacted experts and examined case studies. I have spoken to parents and family members. There is no simple answer. Some of those who go to the U.K. are tricked and misled. They are told that the journey will be easy, that the job opportunities will be legal, and that they would be supported by friends.

The reality is different. One man described how he was forced to walk through the woods in knee-deep snow, and was abandoned without a phone or a compass. He had to eat from the trees to survive. Another woman described how she paid for a VIP transfer, but ended up locked in trucks, subjected to sexual assault, with no one to turn to for help. By choosing illegal migration, she ended up putting her life in the hands of criminals. Once in the U.K., there are regular stories of passports being confiscated by gang masters, and of being subjected to long hours of work with low pay. So I have no doubt that human trafficking gangs exploit vulnerable Vietnamese going to the U.K. and force them into modern slavery.

People light candles during a mass prayer for 39 Vietnamese people found dead in a truck near London, at a church in Nghe An Province, central Vietnam, November 30, 2019.

People light candles during a mass prayer for 39 Vietnamese people found dead in a truck near London, at a church in Nghe An Province, central Vietnam, November 30, 2019. Photo by Reuters.

At the same time, some Vietnamese who try to get to the U.K. illegally are aware of the risks. In a recent survey conducted by my embassy, 80 percent of those questioned said that knowing about the Essex tragedy did not change their plan to go to the U.K. illegally. They know that the journey will be difficult and that the work conditions will be poor, but they go ahead anyway. Why take those risks? Again, the explanation is complicated. One factor does seem to play a significant role. 59 percent of those questioned said that they were going to Europe illegally in order to support their family.

The motivation for economic success within Vietnamese families is strong. The survey mentioned above also noted: Risk-taking by migrants is not simply about personal gain, but a desire to improve the lives of their families. This is generally very positive, with the younger generation in Vietnam striving to improve their lives and those of their loved ones. But, it can also lead to pressure to take an opportunity to go and work abroad at any cost. Some see it as the duty of a child to make a contribution to a prosperous future for the rest of the family, whatever the personal cost.

My message on this sad day of remembrance is twofold. First, to the parents of those who lost loved ones in the Essex tragedy, I am committed to improving co-operation between the U.K. and Vietnam to prevent human trafficking, and bring the criminals to justice. And secondly, to those parents who want their children to work abroad, I encourage you to consider and make an informed decision. I urge you to invest in their education, which will open doors to safe and legal opportunities and ensure a sustainable future for your children and your family.

*Gareth Ward is the British Ambassador to Vietnam.

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