Vietnam truck tragedy does little to discourage human smuggling trade

“I’m sorry, mother. My journey has failed. I’m dying, I can't breathe.”

Pham Thi Tra My was one of 39 Vietnamese people found dead in a container truck in Essex, southeast England, in October 2019. All had died through lack of oxygen while hiding in the trailer in an attempt to illegally enter the country for work. A UK court found seven people guilty of smuggling and manslaughter on January 22.

Her family still keeps the last message she sent them.

My’s family was deep in debt when she decided to go overseas for work. Her younger brother had been in a car accident and her parents were unable to pay for the damages. She told them she had found a job at a nail salon in Britain to help out.

One year on, her family is stricken by grief and even deeper debt. My borrowed more than $21,000 from banks to pay a broker to arrange her travel.

Her father, Pham Van Thin, can’t help thinking that he didn’t do enough to discourage her from making the trip.
“I wanted her to stay home and get married, but she wouldn’t listen,” he says. “If I knew that there would be just one percent of risk in her journey, I would have stopped her.”

Pham Van Thin
Pham Van Thin is the father of Pham Thi Tra My, who was found dead in a container truck in Essex, England in October 2019.

The horrific nature of the incident has done little to discourage others from making the same journey.

“I don’t particularly care about what happened, because it’s a rare occurrence,” said one 21-year-old man living in Nghe-An Province, central Vietnam. “An illegal route is simple and offers many opportunities. You can find a job overseas even if you don’t have any specific skills.”

He says he was planning to enter Germany via Russia last year for a job but had to abandon the plan due to the spread of the coronavirus. He now hopes to illegally enter Canada this April or May.

Many migrant workers come from Nghe-An Province. The local industries are agriculture and fishing, and the average monthly income is less than half that in major cities. Twenty-one of the 39 victims in Essex were from Nghe-An.

39 Vietnamese truck deaths in UK
On 23 October 2019, the bodies of 39 Vietnamese people were found in a container truck in Essex, England.

Pacific Links Foundation, a US human rights group based in Vietnam, characterizes the smuggling trade as a cat-and-mouse game, with brokers constantly looking for new routes as European governments implement countermeasures. As of now, the brokers seem to have the upper-hand. According to United Nations data, approximately 18,000 Vietnamese people are smuggled into European countries every year.

Pacific Links is also worried about a “post-coronavirus outbreak.” Many people in Vietnam have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and the foundation says they will be easily enticed by smugglers once freedom of movement is restored.

“The incident in Essex shocked the world,” says Pacific Links co-founder Diep N Vuong. “But there was really no big discussion about alternatives. The Vietnamese government is cracking down on brokers, but without a stricter attitude, the dangers of smuggling and human trafficking will never disappear.”

Last November, a small memorial service for My was held in her home province of Ha-Tinh.

“I miss her every day,” says her father. “My grief will never go away. I hope the kind of tragedy that hit my daughter never happens again.”