A year since the mass tragedy in Essex, Blue Dragon’s anti-trafficking coordinator Luong Le reflects on what could have been done to avoid the loss of 39 lives – and how we can prevent future disasters.
It has been a year since that awful day. Thirty-nine Vietnamese people left their families and friends behind to look for a better life. Instead, their lives ended in the back of a refrigerated lorry, on the last stage of the journey to find a promised land. They went with the desire to enrich their families, but they lost everything.
People in Vietnam and the UK who were involved in the crime of smuggling them have been arrested, prosecuted and received varying sentences. And yet families whose members died in the lorry have expressed the view that they don’t want anyone to be punished – that it was an unintentional accident for which nobody can be blamed.
Tra’s story: a history of migrating for work
In late 2013, Blue Dragon rescued Tra, then aged 15, from being exploited in a garment sweatshop in Ho Chi Minh City. She did not receive any payment and had no freedom to go out.
We took her home to Ha Tinh province, in north-central Vietnam. In fact, her family did not have a house. They lived on a boat that was also their means of making a living.
The oldest brother left their boat-home to work in different provinces throughout Vietnam after graduating from high school. The two youngest children were sent to live with their grandparents. Tra lived on the boat to help her parents. That summer, an acquaintance persuaded the tall slim girl to go to Ho Chi Minh City, where she became a victim of domestic trafficking for labour exploitation.
Blue Dragon rescued her along with three more children in the same sweatshop.
We provided Tra with all the support that she needed to go back to school. After 3 years, she graduated and refused the opportunity to study further, deciding to go to work. She loved school, but she also would love to reduce her parents’ burdens. However, the family still faced an uncertain future. They came to the decision that Tra’s eldest brother would go abroad to work.
Ha Tinh is one of several provinces in central Vietnam which has a long tradition of people travelling to Europe, and particularly the UK, in search of opportunity. They can earn a lot of money, but Tra’s family had no acquaintances to help them find a job in the UK, and they lacked the payment that was needed to pay the smugglers: up to $40,000 US.
They looked for a safer and cheaper option, even though they would earn less money, finally deciding on Japan. Tra’s family sought advice and were able to make a choice that would give them a good income, but without the high risks of the smuggling routes.
Tra’s brother moved to Hanoi where he learned to speak Japanese at a labor export company. Six months later, he was sent abroad to work with a legal contract and a work visa. After nearly one year, he paid off the $8,000 US loan the family had borrowed for the trip. Two years later, the brother helped pay all the fees for his third sister, Tra’s younger sister, to work in Japan with him in a food processing factory.
A hard year
2020 has been a difficult year across the world. COVID-19 broke out in January and millions of people have been infected. There is no sign that the crisis and its impacts will end soon.
People in central Vietnam, including Tra’s family, are today facing another difficulty. Floods and landslides have hit the region; well over 100 so far are reported dead or missing. Hundreds of thousands of houses are flooded.
These communities are used to preparing for natural disasters, but this year is off the scale. Their homes and all they owned were submerged overnight. These hardships are the reason why they travel throughout the country or overseas in search of opportunities to study, work and enrich their families. Making a decent living is their legitimate right and need. But the most important thing is that these families are able to make a choice, based on honest information and an evaluation of the risks.
In some ways, Tra’s family are lucky that they did not have contacts and money. They were very lucky that they were able to access accurate information about the legal options that must be available so that poor families like Tra’s can improve their situation and have hope for the future. Without pathways to safe, legal employment, people will continue to take unacceptable risks and will be exploited and even die as a result, as the world witnessed with horror one year ago.
To end human smuggling and trafficking, and no longer see horrifying stories of people suffocating in refrigerated vans, the world needs to do a better job of protecting the rights of labour migrants along with ensuring opportunities for decent work at home.
Understanding the experiences of people like Tra helps us see why people in some regions of Vietnam choose to travel far from home for work, in spite of the risks.
And the experience of Tra’s family shows us that, with some basic assistance and access to good information, tragedy can be avoided.