HANOI/LONDON • Young, aspirational and poor Vietnamese are risking their lives to travel to Europe, taking on large debts to join well-worn trafficking routes in the hope of a better future thousands of miles from their rural homes.
The dangers of illegal crossings into Europe were laid bare last week when 39 people were found dead in a refrigerated truck in Britain. British police initially said the victims were Chinese, but it is now feared that most were from Vietnam.
Vietnam police took hair and blood samples yesterday from relatives of people feared to be among the 39 found dead last week, their families said, amid attempts to identify the victims via DNA.
Many Vietnamese migrants come from just a handful of central provinces, where smugglers prey on disaffected youth lured by the prospect of overseas work. Bored by village life and fed up with a lack of opportunity, the allure of overseas riches is enough to tempt many to embark on the risky trips.
Many belong to Vietnam's social-media obsessed population of under 30s, often following relatives or friends to Britain, France and Germany. Facebook posts from abroad and money sent home are often proof enough that the journey is worth it.
Greased by smuggling networks with links in remote Vietnamese towns and throughout eastern Europe, migrants can pay up to US$40,000 (S$54,000) for a ticket out of poverty, borrowing from relatives or taking huge loans. They are often promised princely salaries of up to £3,000 (S$5,000) a month, around three times the annual income in Vietnam's poorest provinces.
But the reality is often far different.
Just a few provinces in central Vietnam - Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Quang Binh - supply most of illegal migrants, according to a report by Anti-Slavery International, Every Child Protected Against Trafficking UK and Pacific Links Foundation. The region has been largely overlooked by Vietnam's breakneck economic growth of the past decade. Meanwhile, migrant success stories ricochet across many small towns, where remittances have transformed the homes and aspirations of many.
"We live on money sent from our people abroad," said the uncle of Mr Nguyen Dinh Tu, a 27-year-old man feared to have died in the ill-fated truck. The uncle lives in a new home his missing nephew helped to finance at a cost of nearly US$13,000. That is a huge sum in Nghe An province, where the average annual per capita income is around US$1,200, well below the national average of about US$2,400.
In his village of Phu Xuan, once a poor farming community in Nghe An province, signs of that wealth abound. Newly-renovated brick homes have replaced shacks. Bicycles have been upgraded for motorbikes and cars, and a trendy bubble tea shop recently opened along the main road.
It is not hard to find someone who can help you get to Europe - for a price. The migrants found dead last week might have paid thousands of dollars for a spot in that refrigerated trailer. Others try their luck by squeezing themselves into the arches above truck wheels, an extremely risky passage.
But tragedy is often not a deterrent. Even if many of the 39 dead are confirmed to be Vietnamese, it might not be enough to stop future migrants from taking the same journey.
Meanwhile, three suspects arrested in Britain over the deaths have been released on bail, British police said yesterday. The police have charged the truck driver, Maurice Robinson, 25, with 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people. He will appear in court today. A fourth suspect was arrested in Dublin last Saturday.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS