Nguyen Thi Huan, 55, second from left, wept in front of a photo of her son Nguyen Dinh Luong, who is feared to be among the 39 people found dead on a truck in Britain earlier this month.Credit…Minzayar Oo for The New York Times
For the poor in Vietnam, human smuggling offers a chance at a better life. “If an electrical pole had legs, it would go too.”
By Sui-Lee Wee
YEN THANH, Vietnam — Across the village, the altar tables have already been set up.
In Buddhist and Catholic households alike, families have not waited for the final word on whether their daughters, sons, brothers and sisters are among the 39 people found dead last week in a refrigerated truck container in an industrial park in Britain, roughly 6,000 miles away.
Though the authorities in Britain have not yet identified the bodies, the families in Vietnam are treating the silence from their loved ones as confirmation enough.
The tables bore framed photographs of the missing, flanked by incense and their favorite foods. For the 19-year-old who left to support her family after her father died of cancer, it was Choco-Pies. For the 26-year-old farmer whose family was mired in debt, it was cans of Red Bull.
Behind each photograph was a tale of desperation from a place of grinding poverty, where naked light bulbs hang from corrugated metal roofs and the roads are unpaved. They are the faces of what locals and experts say has become an exodus from parts of Vietnam, a country that on paper represents one of Asia’s economic success stories.
Some in Vietnam now talk about “box people,” in an echo of the “boat people” who fled the country after the Vietnam War. The name refers to the cargo containers in which many hitch dangerous rides along some of the globe’s busiest trade routes seeking jobs and a future.
“We have a saying,” said Anthony Dang Huu Nam, a local priest. “‘If an electrical pole had legs, it would go too.’”
Investigators are still piecing together who the 39 people are, how they died and why they ended up in Grays, Britain, about 25 miles east of London. But many of the leads point back to a region of north-central Vietnam stricken by poverty and environmental disaster, and the two governments are working together to try to identify the victims.
The authorities in Vietnam have received requests for help from 14 families who say their relatives went missing in Britain, according to a Vietnamese state-run news outlet. The country’s prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, has also instructed officials to look into cases of Vietnamese citizens sent abroad illegally.
Nguyen Dinh Luong, a 20-year-old farmer, left the Vietnamese province of Ha Tinh two years ago to help support his seven siblings. His father said he borrowed $18,000 from his relatives to send Mr. Nguyen to France.
First he had to go to Russia, where he was confined in a house for about six months because he had overstayed his tourist visa. From Russia, Mr. Nguyen moved on to Ukraine before he reached France in July of last year and found a job as a waiter. Then he decided to go to England to work in a nail salon.
“Maybe he was too ambitious,” said the man’s father, Nguyen Dinh Gia, who gave his DNA samples to the police over the weekend to help with the identification process. “I don’t know much. The debt wasn’t fully paid, and in England, you could probably make more money.”
Vietnam’s narrative was supposed to be different. Boosted by growing trade, it enjoys one of the world’s fastest growth rates, reaching 7.1 percent last year. Poverty, defined as a person making less than $3.34 per day, has dropped sharply.
Still, people there make only a fraction of what the average person takes home in the United States or even China. Many in the poorest areas lack access to a decent education. While Vietnam is increasing spending on health and social benefits, many still do not share in the prosperity.
Vietnam is a major source of human trafficking victims into Britain, the second-highest after Albania, according to Britain’s ambassador to Vietnam and anti-human trafficking organizations.
Nghe An and Ha Tinh, two of Vietnam’s poorest provinces, supply much of the trade. Officials in Ha Tinh estimate more than 41,000 people left the province in the first eight months of this year alone.
Many there are farmers. Rice is the region’s predominant crop, and farmers like Mr. Nguyen earn virtually nothing.
North of Ha Tinh, the district of Yen Thanh has also become a major source of migrants. In 2016, a steel mill owned by Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics contaminated coastal waters, devastating the fishing and tourism industries.
Many put themselves in debt to pay “the line” — their term for the shadowy network of human smugglers who take people from country to country before they reach Britain or another destination. Some mortgage their homes or borrow from their families. Even to people there, the human smuggling operation remains shadowy beyond the knowledge that a person would come and collect the money for every successful leg of the journey.
Bui Thi Nhung, 19, wanted to help support her family after her father died of throat cancer in 2017, so she set off on her journey with the help of a loan from her relatives. Of those widely believed to have died in the truck in Britain, she was the youngest.
Nguyen Dinh Tu, a 26-year-old farmer, had borrowed $17,000 to build a house for his wife and two children, ages 5 and 18 months. To repay that debt, he sought help from a labor recruiter to leave for Romania legally in March, according to his elder brother, Nguyen Van Tinh.
Turned off by the low wages at a food company in Romania, he went to Berlin for a job in a restaurant. But he still felt he was not earning enough, so he decided to go to England.
“If you want your life in the village to change,” Mr. Nguyen’s brother said, “the only way is to go overseas.” He said that the family last heard from his brother a day or two before the truck was found.
While many places across Europe seem to promise higher wages and brighter prospects than home, Britain stands out. A sizable population of Vietnamese immigrants there send word home of jobs in nail salons and cannabis farms.
Pham Thi Tra My was convinced she could find a job as a manicurist. The 26-year-old woman from a village in Ha Tinh wanted to help her family, who had accumulated $19,000 in debt. Four years ago, she had borrowed money to pay a labor recruiter to find her a job in Japan as a cook, where she earned enough to pay off that loan. She then borrowed more to buy a car in Vietnam so her younger brother could drive a taxi.
Just a month ago, the car crashed and caught fire. They had no insurance. Rather than return to Japan, Ms. Pham decided she could earn more in Britain.
“I’m thinking about the family and I love you both, so I have to go,” she said, according to her father, Pham Van Thin, who works as a security guard. “Please, Dad and Mom, borrow the money for me so I can travel. Give me the opportunity to pay the debt for my family.”
The family took a mortgage on their home to send her to England. First Ms. Pham flew to Beijing, where she waited for a fake passport. She called home frequently until she went to France, where she stopped reaching out for fear that the authorities could detect her location.
Early on Oct. 23, hours before the bodies in Britain were discovered, she texted her mother. “I’m sorry, Mom, my path abroad didn’t succeed,” she wrote.
“Mom, I love you and Dad so much! I’m dying because I can’t breathe.”
The text arrived in the morning but her mother, Nguyen Thi Phong, did not check her phone until noon, eight hours later. When she called back, there was no answer.
Ms. Nguyen sent her a text: “Child, where are you now? I’m very worried and tired. I love you and feel sorry for you.”
A day later, Ms. Pham’s elder brother, Pham Ngoc Guan, texted her. “Come back and don’t go anymore,” he wrote. “The whole family is worried for you.”
On Sunday, Ms. Pham’s mother wept as she lay on her only daughter’s bed in the family’s home.
Her brother, Pham Ngoc Guan, said: “I’m still hoping she’s in another vehicle, or she’s just lost.”
He picked up his mother’s phone and called his sister again. Nobody answered.
Dan Doan and Chau Doan contributed research.