Essex lorry tragedy must spur greater effort to stop trafficking from Vietnam

Mimi Vu, Dorothea Czarnecki and Nadia Sebtaoui, The Guardian

Criminal networks are depending on the chaos of Covid and Brexit. Now more than ever we need focus and international cooperation to prevent further tragedies

The 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated as they were being smuggled across the Channel in a sealed refrigeration trailer.

The 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated as they were being smuggled across the Channel in a sealed refrigeration trailer. Photograph: Essex PoliceSupported by

Humanity United

Fri 1 Jan 2021 08.30 GMT

Trials in the UK of the drivers and haulage organisers involved in the Essex lorry tragedy in which 39 Vietnamese migrants perished ended in guilty pleas and convictions. Vietnam also convicted the agents who brokered the victims’ journeys to the UK and sentenced them to terms of imprisonment.

While these are positive developments in achieving some measure of justice for the victims, they won’t do anything to stem the smuggling and trafficking of Vietnamese migrants to the UK. No justice system has reached the actual masterminds and profiteers behind this horrific crime: the organised crime groups.

It’s been a year since Essex, and the Covid pandemic has made the world a very different place. International air travel has been disrupted and won’t return to normal for the foreseeable future. Vietnam is one of the world’s few bright spots: it quickly eliminated the spread of the virus and has recorded just over 1,400 cases and 35 deaths. Consequently, its economic outlook is rosy. Manufacturing is booming, with multinational companies diversifying their supply chain into Vietnam, which means thousands of new jobs.

Yet young Vietnamese are still trying to go to the UK and Europe. Recruiters post daily messages on social media that advertise blue-collar jobs in countries such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, Finland and Slovakia, promising a life of relative prosperity. Scores of Vietnamese reply, eager to be the first ones to depart as soon as international borders reopen. If the risk of anonymous death in the back of a lorry, Covid-19 and criminal convictions can’t stop the smuggling and trafficking of Vietnamese people to the UK, what can?Met police to compensate child slavery victim arrested after reporting ordealRead more

First, we need to address the root causes of why people embark on this dangerous journey in the first place. Driven by a desire for economic and social opportunities they believe are unattainable in their home provinces in central Vietnam, people are willing to pay £30,000 or more to smugglers for a “safe route” to the UK. Awareness-raising campaigns are not enough to dispel the myth of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The campaigns need to be accompanied by programmes that provide opportunities for a better life in Vietnam, such as vocational training and job placements.

At the same time, trafficking can no longer be considered solely a UK or Vietnam problem. The trade is incredibly lucrative, and includes wildlife, drugs and counterfeit goods, and is led by ethnic Vietnamese organised crime groups based in countries with large diaspora communities such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany and France. It’s no coincidence that smuggling routes commonly run through these countries, and Vietnamese migrants often become victims of exploitation while on their way to the UK. The perpetrators may be of Vietnamese origin, but they are EU citizens committing crimes on EU soil.

One of the biggest shortcomings with the UK and EU responses to Vietnamese trafficking and organised crime is the lack of experience and resources to work with victims and diaspora communities. One good first step in 2020 was the secondment of Vietnamese officers to Police Scotland, bringing much-needed linguistic and cultural expertise. This cross-border cooperation needs to be broadened to include EU transit countries and a long-term strategy and dedicated budget to tackle Vietnamese trafficking and smuggling at the highest criminal levels.

The sad truth is that the Vietnamese migrants in the lorry were only considered victims because they died, tragically and very publicly. Otherwise, they would have been considered illegal migrants with no regard as to how they were exploited or victimised before reaching Essex. Going forward, we must recognise victims no matter where they are in their journey and change our solutions and responses to match the transnational and constantly evolving business of human trafficking and smuggling. Criminal networks are depending on the chaos of Covid, Brexit and economic recession to shift attention away from them, but governments, NGOs, the private sector and law enforcement must remain focused and coordinated. There is always another Essex tragedy waiting in the wings.

• Mimi Vu is a partner at Raise Partners and a Vietnam-based anti-trafficking and modern slavery expert. Dr Dorothea Czarnecki is deputy director at ECPAT Germany and vice-chair of ECPAT International. Nadia Sebtaoui is a Paris-based migration and anti-trafficking expert

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