By Eric San Juan / Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) / Vietnam was still in mourning on Friday, a day after it was confirmed that the 39 migrants who were recently found dead in a truck in the English county of Essex were Vietnamese, mostly from the Southeast Asian country’s poor and rural areas.
The Vietnamese government confirmed the identity of the victims late on Thursday and expressed its condolences to the families and friends of the migrants, who had paid up to $40,000 to people traffickers in the hope of finding a better life in the United Kingdom.
Vietnam’s rapid growth since it began to open up its economy in the late 1980s has mainly impacted urban dwellers in the large cities and has excluded the inhabitants of the most rural and poorest provinces, where the only way most people could hope for improved living conditions is by moving to big cities or abroad.
According to the United Nations, the average salary in Vietnamese cities is double that of what one makes working in the fields in rural areas.
Thousands of Vietnamese people risk an expensive and precarious journey to reach European lands, such as the 39 killed in Essex, who came from the central and northern provinces of the Asian country.
“Hundreds of thousands migrate to the industrialized peripheries of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Tens of thousands go to other countries in Southeast Asia or Asia. And a few thousand go to Europe, which costs a lot of money and is very difficult to organize,” Nicolas Lainez, a research associate at the Paris-based Center for Southeast Asia (CASE), told EFE.
Away from the main cities, without tourist attractions and hit every year by typhoons and storms – phenomena that are aggravated by the climate crisis – people from provinces such as Nghe An and Ha Tinh have become accustomed to the idea of emigrating for a better life since the time of the Cold War, when they sought the seemingly greener pastures of Communist Europe.
Mimi Vu, an expert on trafficking and human smuggling from Ho Chi Minh City, explained to EFE that a program to emigrate to countries in the Eastern Bloc was launched by the communist regime in Hanoi in 1975, thus fostering in the area a “tradition” that has remained until now.
“Many of the workers who had the opportunity to go to the countries of the former Soviet bloc came from these provinces. It was then that the tradition changed from going abroad in general to going to Europe and earn money to support families in Vietnam. The remittance culture started then,” she said.
The example many want to follow is that of Pham Nhat Vuong, from Ha Tinh, who studied in Moscow in the 1980s, then moved to Ukraine to start a noodle business, and years later returned to Vietnam with enough money and contacts to end up as the richest man in the country with his industrial group Vingroup.
Setting aside the extraordinary case of Vuong, many families who encourage their children to emigrate aspire for a more comfortable life that, on clearing the debt to people trafficking networks, would allow them to have small luxuries like owning a car or building a new house.
“It has been going on for over 30 years and moreover now they send money for the family to start a business. Vietnam remains one of the countries that receive the highest remittances, and depends on them to maintain the economy,” Vu said.
For Lainez, it is also a question of social networks and available contacts. “If everyone in your district goes to Taiwan or Europe you’re going to do the same. And if those next door go to Saigon (officially called Ho Chi Minh City) because there are social networks that favor that, you’re going to go to Saigon,” he said.
In recent years, the UK appears to have emerged as a preferred destination in Europe, something Vu attributed to the tendency to associate English-speaking countries with a higher economic level, and to the Vietnamese community that has settled there since the 1990s.
“The United States will always be the favorite destination. But there is this idea that where English is spoken there is more money, so they choose the UK, where they can go by land. Access to English-speaking countries such as the US, Canada or Australia is more difficult,” he said.
While the impact of the Essex tragedy may lead to increased awareness among citizens and authorities regarding trafficking and people smuggling, neither of the two experts consulted believed that the flow would be checked or impacted.
“Unless you go to the root of the problem, which is poverty,” he said, “people are going to keep leaving because they’ll have the same options as before. You have to give them other options: alternatives for a better life in Vietnam or a safe and legal emigration system that does not serve to exploit them.” (November 8, 2019, EFE/Practica Español)
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