HO CHI MINH CITY - Vietnam Friday announced its first arrests in a suspected cross-border trafficking case in Essex, England, where authorities found the bodies of 39 Vietnamese they believe suffocated to death in a refrigerated truck.
Police in Ha Tinh province said they arrested and charged two suspects after 10 local families reported fearing their family members were among the 39 victims. The case has reached the highest levels of government, with both the British and Vietnamese prime ministers ordering investigations. The probes have expanded to include transit countries China, Ireland, and Belgium, where officials say the driver of the truck said he’d been transporting cookies and biscuits.
“The Ha Tinh Police have gathered the forces and means to clearly investigate the legal violations of individuals and organizations involved,” a post on the police website said Saturday. They did not name the suspects but said they detained others for questioning too.
The suspects were charged with "organizing and brokering for other people to flee abroad or stay abroad illegally." British police have also arrested or charged at least five people on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people.
Journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai, the author of the book "Chinese Whispers: The Story Behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour," wrote in the Guardian Wednesday that it is not constructive to merely focus on crime or “evil human traffickers.” She argued the 39 found last month were not hapless victims lured into trafficking, but workers “fighting for a future for their families.”
“In reality, the Vietnamese young men and women who choose to travel on these dangerous routes only do so when they cannot come to Britain in formal ways,” she wrote.
Pai said there “will be more deaths in lorries unless Britain changes” its anti-migrant policies.
“Let our fellow human beings have the opportunity to live and work in the open,” she wrote.
Separately, police in another Vietnamese province, Nghe An, said last week they arrested four people suspected of involvement in a trafficking ring, local media reported. It is unclear if that network was at all involved with the Vietnamese migrants found in Essex, but the truck deaths have increased the attention and urgency around existing investigations.
For the Essex Police, the truck deaths reportedly mark the biggest investigation they have conducted into mass casualties.
Although Vietnam has greatly decreased poverty since the end of the U.S.-Vietnam war, some still find they can earn more money to support their families by going overseas.
Among Asian migrants, Vietnamese pay the highest costs to brokers, and the number of migrants is rising, according to the International Labor Organization in Vietnam. It recommends that governments collaborate to ensure safe channels for migration, so people don’t have to resort to brokers. Migrants are still going through irregular channels because globalization has created more jobs in more places; however, while globalization has fostered the flow of companies and capital across borders, it has not done so for workers, pushing them toward trafficking.
“With collaboration and cooperation, labor migration can be a positive development force, and risks to the safety of migrant workers can be reduced,” Chang-Hee Lee, the ILO country director in Hanoi, said Tuesday.