Britain's Black Economy Draws Vietnamese Migrants video player.

LONDON - The deaths of 39 migrants in the back of a refrigerated truck near London last week has focused a spotlight on the lives of those who risk everything to earn a better living in Britain.

Many of the victims are believed to have traveled from Vietnam. Tamsin Barber, an expert on the Vietnamese diaspora in Britain at Oxford Brookes University, says many migrants are willing to take huge risks.

“They’re doing that because they know that when they get to the UK, the likelihood is that they’re going to be able to find work in the cannabis industry, where they might be able to earn large amounts of money in a short period of time, paying back their debts, the debts to the smugglers, and then eventually being able to pay send remittances back to their family,” Barber said.

Vietnamese residents light candles during a prayer for 39 people found dead in the back of a truck near London, in front of Hanoi Cathedral in Hanoi, Oct. 27, 2019.

Cannabis and nail salons

As well as the illegal cannabis industry, many Vietnamese work in nail and beauty salons, which have boomed on British high streets in recent years. Others work in the restaurant trade or as cleaners, while some are drawn into prostitution.

Once here, many migrants are effectively trapped, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

“When they get to the UK, the debt bondage, that huge debt, $30,000 to $40,000, is taken from their wages,” Robertson said. “If they don’t behave or if they don’t follow instructions, there could also be ramifications for their families back in Vietnam from those people-smuggling gangs.”

Robertson said some migrants endure slavelike conditions.

“They’re scared to death that if they are reported or somehow seek out the authorities because they are being abused so badly, that all that happens is they’ll be arrested and sent back to Vietnam, still owing a large debt,” he said.

Entire family benefits

Despite the risks, sending a family member overseas is often a joint decision, Barber said.

“The methods that families might use to raise this sort of money might be selling land, it might be remortgaging their houses, it might be borrowing money from money lenders at very high interest rates,” Barber said.

If successful, the profits can transform communities back home. In Do Thanh, 250 kilometers south of Hanoi, rundown shacks are being replaced with luxury villas. Local resident Nguyen Van Thuy, a metalworker who has remained in the village, says it has changed beyond recognition.

“Originally, the entirety of Do Thanh commune was just farmers working in the fields,” Van Thuy said, “but then some people went overseas to work where they got rich. That’s why many people rushed to go, both flying there legally and using illegal ‘underground’ routes.”

FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2019, file photo, police forensic officers attend the scene after a truck was found to contain a large…
FILE - Police forensics officers attend the scene after a truck was found to contain the bodies of 39 refugees, in Thurrock, South England, Oct. 23, 2019.

Road to tragedy

That illegal route ended in tragedy last week for 39 migrants crossing the English Channel to Britain. It appears they suffocated in the back of a sealed refrigerated truck.

Nguyen Thanh Le fears his son Hung was among them. The family spoke to VOA Vietnamese this week, after being asked by authorities to provide their son’s photograph and their DNA samples for identification.

Hung last talked to his family Oct. 21, two days before the truck was found with the bodies inside, 30 kilometers east of London. The father said he borrowed more than 400 million dong (US $17,000) from the bank to send his son abroad. He still owes a quarter of that money.

“He wanted to go to England to work in a nail spa,” said Le, saying his son promised to “send money home” from his work in the UK.

Hung, 33, left Vietnam less than a year ago, heading to Russia first and then to France.

“Since my wife and I are both sick, Hung wanted to go to work abroad to get better income to help us, and also to look for a chance to get a better life for himself,” Le said. “He got a degree in music but wasn’t able to find a job.”

Hung graduated from the respected Hue Conservatory University but wanted to go abroad to earn more money. 

Nguyen Thanh Le holds up his phone showing a photo of his son Nguyen Van Hung on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, in Dien Chau district,…
Nguyen Thanh Le holds a photo of his son Nguyen Van Hung, Oct. 28, 2019, in Dien Chau district, Nghe An province, Vietnam.

“In France, Hung worked as a dishwasher in restaurants,” his father told VOA Vietnamese. “But he got back pain after a while doing the work. Hung told me he wanted to go to England as friends told him that working in a nail spa is more comfortable and he may get better pay.”

Le says he wanted his son to stay home and get married, but Hung was determined to go abroad.

It’s a common story, said Barber of Oxford Brookes University.

“They’re taking these dangerous routes and it’s likely they’re still going to continue to come because there’s so much to be gained from their migration here to the UK.”

Barber says the latest tragedy may put off some migrants from taking risky journeys in the short term.

However, as long as there are no legal routes to Britain for low-skilled migrants and the market for cheap, black-market labor remains high, the demand for illegal people-smugglers will continue to grow.