A Vietnamese woman  stands outside her house in Yen Thanh district of Vietnam's Nghe An province on October 27, 2019. - Dread…
A Vietnamese woman stands outside her house in Yen Thanh district of Vietnam's Nghe An province, Oct. 27, 2019.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Vietnam’s prime minister has ordered an investigation into whether 39 people found dead in a truck in the United Kingdom last month were trafficked out of his country illegally.

While the order may mollify outraged Vietnamese citizens, experts fear it masks the government’s longer-term powerlessness to stop people from being smuggled into wealthier countries for money.

The discovery by police in southeastern England quickly cast attention on human trafficking from Vietnam to Europe where incomes are higher. Several arrests have been made in the United Kingdom, and one man was charged with conspiracy to traffic people.

But an elaborate international chain of command to move people out of Vietnam for high-paid work offshore has grown so mature, dating back to when Vietnam was poorer than it is today, that government officials will find it hard if not impossible to stop, experts say.

“This is a never-ending fight,” said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor of politics at The University of New South Wales in Australia. “The rewards to the smugglers are too great and the nirvana lifestyle they offer to the people (who) are desperate.”

In Vietnam's less-developed towns, like Da Lat, brokers post signs offering to take locals abroad to find work. (Ha Nguyen/VOA)

Efforts to stop human trafficking

After the 39 deaths were discovered, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told his Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to start an investigation into human smuggling and create “citizen protection measures” if needed, state-run Viet Nam News reported Thursday.

Last year, the news service said, British and Vietnamese governments had signed a memorandum of understanding “to tackle modern slavery.”

When a Vietnamese foreign minister telephoned a British official Tuesday to discuss the recent case, the two agreed they would “call on the international community to strengthen co-operation to combat the crime.”

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks with Chief Constable of Essex Police, Ben-Julian Harrington, as they prepare to lay flowers, during a visit to Thurrock Council Offices in Thurrock, east of London, Oct. 28, 2019.

Barriers to a crackdown

Public security officials could publicize the issues further and root out more smuggling organizers, Thayer said. They catch people only occasionally now, he added.

But victims of discovered smuggling attempts lack the means to identify the heads of trafficking rings, he said, while Vietnam’s special economic zones with neighboring countries make it easy for citizens to leave.

“The borders are porous and people can cross over,” Thayer said.

Trafficking networks have thrived in Vietnam since at least the 19th century, often taking women and children to Hong Kong or mainland China for sale into marriage or prostitution, according to the 2015 book Human Trafficking in Colonial Vietnam.

To stop women from entering abusive marriages with citizens of richer Asian countries, government officials in Vietnam now do rigorous background checks on marriage applications, said Frederick Burke, partner with the law firm Baker McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City.

“For sure they will be looking at what kind of controls (they can take)” after the case in England, he said. “They have huge issues with sale of wives. These are not new issues.”

Common Vietnamese still see the UK deaths last month mainly as just a case of people being cheated by their group leader, Burke said. Looking at emigration for work overall, he said, a lot of Vietnamese still hold a “grass is greener on the other side of the fence mentality.”

A portrait of Bui Thi Nhung, who is feared to be among the 39 people found dead in a truck in Britain, is kept on a prayer altar at her house in Vietnam's Nghe An province, Oct. 27, 2019.

Economic incentives miss the extreme poor

At home, Vietnamese officials effectively improve people’s livelihoods by encouraging foreign investment in export manufacturing, which creates jobs. The Southeast Asian country’s $300 billion economy will grow by up to 6.8% this year, SSI Research in Hanoi says. It expanded 7.1% in 2018, the highest rate in 11 years.

Blue-collar wages of less than $200 per month, however, hardly compare to wages in the countries where trafficked people often end up today. Vietnamese still jump at chances to work in factories in Russia, do construction work in Libya and get hired on British farms.

About 10% of Vietnam’s 95 million people live in poverty, sometimes in “pockets of extreme poverty” far from industrial job centers, IHS Markit Asia-Pacific chief economist Rajiv Biswas said.

The government should address these pockets, some in the remote mountains, but will find it hard, he said.

“Now the issue I think for Vietnam is addressing these pockets of poverty in mountain areas, which is quite difficult to do because (of) their ability to work in industrial jobs — they don’t have access to that kind of work,” Biswas said.