DIEN THINH – For many Vietnamese, a job in a Western European country is seen as a path to prosperity worth breaking the law. But the risks of doing so are high and the consequences can be deadly, as the discovery of 39 bodies in a truck in England last week proved.
The victims were believed to be Vietnamese who had paid traffickers to smuggle them into Britain. And now residents of this small rural Vietnamese community fear that two cousins were among the dead in the refrigerated cargo container.
"I miss him very much," said Hoang Van Lanh, who anxiously awaited word on the fate of his 18-year-old son, Hoang Van Tiep. But he added, "That's life. We have to sacrifice to earn a better living. Tiep is a good son. He wants to go overseas to work and take care of parents when we get old. He insisted to go, for a better life."
Dien Thinh in north-central Vietnam is a coastal village with 300 households that depend on small-scale farming of peanuts and sesame and seasonal fishing. A big pink church in the village center that marks this as a Catholic settlement is surrounded by modest homes, though there are also some new two- and three-story houses belonging to families who have members working abroad.
The village is a 15-minute drive from Yen Thanh district, a similar area where 13 families have come forward to report missing family members.
By Vietnamese standards, Dien Thinh is not especially poor, but like many rural areas, it lags behind urban regions economically. The average annual per capita income in the province where the village is situated is $1,620, compared with a national average of $2,587, according to the Vietnamese government.
Many young people head for the cities or gamble on their chances in Europe, whether out of devotion to their families, a desire to escape a life of backbreaking manual labor, or a yearning for a fancy new house.
Tiep's parents live in a one-story brick house built three years ago. Hanging across the length of a living room wall, above a cross, is a framed print of "The Last Supper." His mother, Hoang Thi Ai, sobbed and stared blankly this week as visitors tried to comfort her. She carried her phone everywhere in the hope he would contact her.
The last texts she received from him were on Oct. 22 — the day before British authorities discovered the truck — and said he was "on the way" to England and "please prepare the money at home" and "10 thousand 5," shorthand for the 10,500 pounds ($13,600) left to be paid to the traffickers.
Families normally pay half the trafficker's fee before the trip and the remainder when the person being transported arrives at the destination. Tiep's family was never asked for the second payment, compounding their fears he is among the dead.
Ai said Tiep dropped out of school in the ninth grade and started working because they are so poor. "He helped out by going fishing with his father. But fishing trips didn't bring a lot," she said. "He couldn't find a job. That's why he wanted to go."
The family borrowed the equivalent of $17,500 from a bank to pay for him to be smuggled into France in 2017, when he was 16. The journey, through Russia and Germany, took 20 days. Tiep worked as a dishwasher at a series of restaurants, sending home money to help pay off the loan. But even today, the family still owes about $4,500.
Tiep told his parents his prospects in France were poor, and he wanted to go to England for a better-paying job working at nail salons. "Nail bars," as they are known in Britain, are go-to employment spots for Asian migrants but often pay barely enough to scrape by. He asked for his parents' financial help, saying the move would help pay off the debt.
"He told me that he'd travel by car, but it turned out that they transported people in that container," his father said. said. "I would never have let him go that way."
He added: "I hope he can be spared by not being on that container. But we have to prepare for the worst. That's fate. If he died, I hope we can have him back home."
Living just few hundred meters (yards) from Tiep's family is the family of his cousin Nguyen Van Hung, likewise feared to be a victim of the trafficking tragedy. He also hasn't contacted his family since Oct. 22.
Hung, 30, had been a school music teacher. But the salary he earned for part-time work, 4 million to 5 million dong ($170 to $220) a month, could not support him in the city where he taught, and he did not want to return to his village. He was desperate to find work overseas, said his father, Nguyen Thanh Le.
"Hung wanted to go to work abroad so he could earn money to support his parents, because we are both ill and can't work much," Le said. "I actually didn't want him to go, but I wanted him to stay at home and get married, but he didn't tell us and secretly left Vietnam."
Hung made it to France in 2017, where he worked as a waiter at several restaurants.
The journey of thousands of miles to Western Europe is dangerous, especially for women and children.
"There is a very high risk for them to be sexually exploited on the way," Mimi Vu, an anti-trafficking activist based in Vietnam. "If you are traveling by yourself among a bunch of men, what do you think is going to happen? ... If these people think they can make money off of you, they will make money off of you."
Safe passage hardly brings the migrants closer to any financial reward. The extortionate smuggling fees leave many migrants in a state of bondage.
They typically have to pay $40,000 to $50,000 to be smuggled into England, plus interest, and when they get there, money is withheld from their meager pay, leaving them with little if any, Vu said. Paying off the debt can take years.
There are legal and safe ways for Vietnamese to earn money overseas. They are not cheap, but they are less expensive than dealing with traffickers. Travel arranged by legitimate overseas employment agencies normally ranges from $3,000 to $5,000.
These agencies register with Vietnam's Labor Ministry and work with vocational schools and universities to set up training and orientation programs before sending workers to destinations mostly in Asia, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, and in the Middle East, including Kuwait and Qatar.
Truong Cong Suu, head of the labor department in the district where Dien Thinh is situated, said that while about 1,000 people from the district take the legal route to work overseas each year, around 200 to 300 go through illegitimate channels.
Local authorities say they take steps to stop the flow, issuing work-related passports only when they have a reference letter from a legitimate labor export agency and turning down suspicious requests for tourist passports if they have doubts the applicant's family can afford the trip.
"If they stay in school and continue the education, they can go overseas through regulated and legitimate agents," Vu said. "But they want to get rich faster because they are fed with false information about salary and the lives in England."
The problem, Vu said, is that "the Vietnamese don't realize that they are victims."
"They just think it is part of the suffering that they have to endure to be successful, to make it to the other side," she said.